Skip to Content

SCHR Calls on U.S. Department of Justice to Intervene as Georgia Prisons Descend into COVID-19-Related Chaos

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions in Georgia prisons have deteriorated to the point of constitutional crisis. Prisons are grossly understaffed, and homicide and suicide rates have reached unprecedented levels. Disturbances have broken out at several prisons, after people were left locked in their cells nearly around the clock for weeks at a time without access to sufficient food, water, or showers.  

Yesterday, SCHR sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that urges the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to investigate the deplorable conditions in several Georgia prisons, including Ware State Prison, Macon State Prison, and Georgia State Prison. The letter reports the following facts: 

Riots have erupted at multiple Georgia prisons since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last three months, there have been large-scale riots at Ware State Prison and Macon State Prison.  The disturbances were precipitated by gross understaffing caused in part by COVID-19. They occurred after incarcerated people were left locked in their cells, nearly 24/7, for weeks or months, often in reprehensible conditions.  

Videos taken by incarcerated people and readily available online show extreme deprivations – injured prisoners covered in blood, prison dorms with no security supervision, groups of men roaming lockdown dorms armed with machetes, and cells with no running water or functioning toilets. 

Homicides in Georgia prisons have reached unprecedented levels.  Since January 1, 2020, 21 people have been killed in the Georgia prison system, with six of these homicides occurring at Macon State Prison over the course of just six months.  More people died by homicide at Macon State Prison than were killed in multi-year periods in other states’ entire prison systems. (For example, the Arizona DOC had two reported homicides in all its prisons in fiscal year 2019, and none in fiscal year 2020.) In the first eight months of 2020, more people have been murdered in Georgia prisons than in any single year in the Department between 2014 and 2018.  

Suicides in Georgia prisons have reached unprecedented levels – the result of extreme neglect of persons with psychiatric disabilities.  In the last eight months, at least 19 incarcerated people have died by suicide, which is a rate of 40 per 100,000 people (twice the national average in state prisons, and nearly twice the rate in Alabama’s prisons).  

About 30% of suicides in the GDC since January 1 have occurred at Georgia State Prison, a prison that purportedly specializes in the housing and care of people with serious mental illness. 

Understaffing in Georgia prisons has reached a crisis point.  As of June 2020, there were 2,740 unfilled officer positions throughout the Department, a vacancy rate of nearly 30%.  Macon State Prison has an officer vacancy rate of 46.8%.  Georgia State Prison has an officer vacancy rate of just over 50%. Former officers from Ware State Prison report that as few as six security staff members are often asked to supervise a prison housing over 1,000 men.  

Over the last three months, SCHR has repeatedly brought the conditions described above to the Department’s attention.  The Department has failed to respond in any meaningful way, jeopardizing the lives of incarcerated people and prison staff and resulting in widespread suffering and death.  Read the letter below.