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Justice Department to investigate Georgia prisons

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has launched an investigation into allegations of unconstitutional prisoner abuse in Georgia, a broad civil rights investigation that could force the state to undertake a federally mandated overhaul.

The department has also separately limited whether and how federal law enforcement officers can use tactics that have been widely criticized for their role in the deaths of blacks at the hands of local police, including neck straps like braces. strangulations and unannounced searches for evidence.

The measures, announced on Tuesday, broadly address issues of law enforcement violence and incarceration that have become a rallying point for criminal justice advocates and have led to protests and civil unrest across the country. the country.

The Georgia investigation was prompted by the documentation of violence in state prisons. In a riot last year at Ware State Prison that took place on social media, hundreds of inmates took over the building, set fire to and took guards hostage, causing widespread violence. damage and a myriad of injuries.

At least 26 people died in 2020 from confirmed or suspected homicides in Georgian prisons, and 18 homicides, as well as numerous stabbing and beatings, have been reported this year.

“Under the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution, those who have been convicted of felonies and sentenced to serve time in prison should never be subjected to ‘cruel and unusual sentences’,” said Kristen Clarke, head of the division. civil rights of the Ministry of Justice. by announcing the investigation at a virtual press conference.

Ms Clarke said the dangerous conditions in state prisons, including “contraband weapons and open gang activity”, appeared to be exacerbated by many systemic factors. She cited staff shortages and high turnover, policy and training issues and a lack of accountability for misconduct. But she said the ministry had come to no conclusion on the allegations it was investigating.

The investigation will focus on inter-prisoner violence and will include an investigation initiated by the department into sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by staff members and other prisoners.

If investigators from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and Georgia’s federal prosecutors determine that prisoners are subject to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, the agency could place the Department of Corrections in the State under a consent decree, a federally mandated overhaul that is overseen by the courts and outside monitors.

The Department of Justice recently used consent decrees to force reviews on state prisons in Virginia and New Jersey.

Last year, he sued Alabama for the state of its prisons, accusing staff members of violating the Constitution by allowing a systemic culture of excessive force against inmates to develop. Alabama fought to be placed under a consent decree.

Georgian officials on Tuesday denied systematically violating the rights of detainees, a determination that is often the precursor to a consent decree.

“The Georgia Department of Corrections is committed to ensuring the safety of all offenders in its custody,” Lori Benoit, spokesperson for the department, said in a statement.

She added that the department’s commitment to security “includes protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault.”

The Justice Department also announced a policy prohibiting federal law enforcement officials from using chokes and carotid restraints unless they are permitted to use lethal force. It also limited the circumstances in which federal law enforcement could make unannounced, or supposedly no-knock, entries.

The policies apply only to federal officers, so they do not change state and local policing rules.

But they directly address the practices that gained notoriety after high-profile episodes that fueled public criticism of the police and their use of force, including the 2014 death of a Staten Island man named Eric Garner after that a police officer put him in a prohibited strangulation during an arrest. Cell phone recordings of Mr Garner panting “I can’t breathe” catalyzed the national Black Lives Matter movement and the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired, though the Justice Department refused to press charges of civil rights against him.

Last year, Louisville cops shot dead Breonna Taylor, a black medical worker, in a botched raid on her apartment, which sparked months of large-scale protests against racial injustice and the maintenance of the ‘order. Whether the officers announced themselves in advance was disputed, which allowed for a close examination of the practice of smooth raids.

The Department of Justice policy changes stem from a review of law enforcement practices led by Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco.

“It is essential that the law enforcement agencies of the Ministry of Justice adhere to a single set of standards regarding ‘chokes’, ‘carotid restraints’ and ‘no knocking’ entries,” said Ms Monaco. in a press release. “This new policy does just that and limits the circumstances in which these techniques can be used.”

Federal agents are generally required to knock on doors, identify themselves, identify themselves and request entry before entering a building. The Justice Department said they were only allowed to depart from the practice if officers had reason to believe that coming forward could endanger them.

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