ZACHARY: Eroding election erode democracy

DomeLight by Jim Zachary 

A prison sentence should not be a death sentence, unless it is.

The feds are investigating Georgia prisons.

People die — a lot of people die — while incarcerated in our state, and the U.S. Department of Justice wants to know why.

The DOJ says in 2020 alone there were around 40 homicides in Georgia prisons. Of course, that's 40 too many.

When a person does die behind bars, it is difficult for families, the public and the press to get any information about the circumstances surrounding the death and that lack of transparency alone, must change.

The DOJ also wants to look into the overall conditions at the state's prisons.

And it should.

It is not uncommon at all for newspapers to receive letters from inmates complaining about conditions at jails and prisons. Of course, no one wants to be in jail, and we get that. But the fact that someone has been convicted of a crime does not mean they should be subjected to inhumane treatment or violence while in the state's custody.

The DOJ has said it will examine whether Georgia's 35 Georgia Department of Corrections prisons provide prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division put it this way, "Ensuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority, The Justice Department’s investigations into prison conditions have been successful at identifying systemic constitutional violations and their causes, fixing those causes and stopping the violations. We are investigating prison violence and abuse in Georgia’s prisons to determine whether constitutional violations exist, and if so, how to stop them.”

The investigation comes amid numerous complaints from groups expressing concerns about jail conditions.

Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine was right when he said, “Individuals sentenced to prison in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities deserve to be treated humanely.”

Valdosta State Prison is one of the 35 prisons being investigated. Previous reporting by The Valdosta Daily Times revealed that more than a dozen inmates have died in the prison or as a result of inmate fighting since 2017. The report indicates at least eight inmates died after a fight, four by suspected suicide and two found unresponsive in their cells. Two inmate deaths at Baldwin State Prison near Milledgeville this year have been attributed to murder, according to The Union Recorder.

Acting U.S. Attorney Peter Leary summed up the situation clearly when he said, “Prison conditions that enable inmates to engage in dangerous and even deadly activity are an injustice, jeopardizing the lives of detainees, staff members and other corrections personnel.”

Sadly, Georgia is in the national spotlight once again and not in a good way.

State lawmakers should have been out in front of this problem rather than waiting for the feds to come in to right the wrongs of injustice in Georgia prisons.

Any reforms in our state's prison system must include increased transparency around prison conditions and, most certainly, regarding the tragic deaths of those who die behind bars. 

Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's director of newsroom training and development and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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