Georgia has a Prison Problem, but State Efforts to Fix it in Limbo

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Mar 24, 2022
Key Points
  • Georgia’s prison system is under a federal investigation into unsafe and unsanitary conditions for inmates.
  • Taxpayer costs for Georgia prisons are among the highest in the U.S. at $1.2 billion annually.
  • State lawmakers are on track to make little headway this year in addressing Georgia’s reportedly poor prison conditions.

The Gist

Georgia lawmakers likely won’t act this year to keep better watch over the state’s $1.2-billion prison system, one of the biggest expenditures in the state budget, amid a federal investigation into unsafe and unsanitary prison conditions.

What’s Happening

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation into “conditions of confinement of prisoners held in Georgia’s state prisons.” That investigation was launched last September.

In a statement, the DOJ said its statewide civil rights investigation “will examine whether Georgia provides prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.” The Justice Department was already investigating whether the state provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex prisoners “reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and staff.”

“The Justice Department’s investigations into prison conditions have been successful at identifying systemic constitutional violations and their causes, fixing those causes and stopping violations,” assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said last September. “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 launch of the DOJ investigation came a week before Democratic state lawmakers gathered former inmates, parents and prison advocates who aired serious complaints about local prisons. Their testimony shed light on fight outbreaks, overwhelmed guards, lack of medical care and scant information to relatives about the deaths of their incarcerated loved ones.

One woman inmate reportedly used nail clippers to remove infected stitches around her vagina following a surgical procedure to help deliver her child. Prison medical staff said the infection would heal itself and declined to remove the stitches, said Vanessa Garrett, a former inmate and now program manager at the nonprofit Motherhood Beyond Bars.

“She was that desperate to get them out that she used nail clippers,” Garrett told lawmakers.

Why It Matters

Georgia’s Department of Corrections receives among the largest shares of taxpayer funds compared to other agencies at $1.2 billion this year – about 4% of the total state budget. That ranked Georgia 13th-highest in state prison spending in the U.S. in 2019, the most recent data kept by the DOJ’s National Institute of Corrections. State Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs), a critic of the prison system, called the big spending a bad deal for taxpayers.

“This is a human-rights crisis that taxpayers are funding,” McLaurin told State Affairs. “In terms of the scope of the suffering and the dollars involved, it’s one of the biggest problems that the state faces.”

Read about the high worker turnover in Georgia’s state government, particularly for prison guards, by clicking the image above. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs).

Roughly 1 in every 37 Georgians were either incarcerated or on some form of post-release supervision last year, state data shows. Georgia prisons held on average nearly 43,000 inmates a day in 2021, with another roughly 4,000 inmates in transitional and substance-treatment centers. The state also spent an average $28,000 per inmate.

Georgia prisons have also struggled to retain guards. The system lost more than 2,000 guards between 2018 and 2021, totaling roughly a third of the prison workforce, state data shows.

Short on Solutions

State lawmakers filed a slate of bills aimed at prison reform this year including on mental-illness evaluations, inmate death investigations, solitary confinement, menstrual products, inmate labor payments and inmate-labor tracking.

Almost none are likely to pass in this year’s legislative session.

One stalled measure from McLaurin would create a new ombudsman’s office empowered to make unannounced prison inspections, review internal records and report findings to the public. Advocates say that’s key to shining light on Georgia’s prison conditions.

Another measure from state Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville) would add an extra layer of oversight to the internal rules-making process that prison officials undertake. Werkheiser told State Affairs his bill seemed like a shoe-in at first, then hit a wall.

“That bill moved really quickly,” Werkheiser said. “Until it didn’t.”

Prison reform is tough for many lawmakers to swallow in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, given prisoners and their families make up a small share of the voting population, said McLaurin. “Right now, we’re set up in this posture where we basically wait for the federal government to come get us in line,” he said.

While he waits on that, the federal government has its own issues with Georgia’s six federal prisons. Last month, U.S. Senators Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) and Mike Braun (R-Indiana) created the bipartisan Senate Prison Policy Working Group to investigate human rights violations in the state’s prisons and to promote transparency.

What’s Next?

State prison officials have brushed off criticism of inmate treatment. In a statement last September, the corrections department said it “denies that it has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating their civil rights or failing to protect them from harm due to violence.”

The corrections department did not respond to State Affairs’ questions for this story.

Amid criticism, state lawmakers passed a $7,000 pay raise this year for prison guards to help curb turnover. The latest $30-billion state budget also includes about $432 million to open two new prisons, including one for maximum-security inmates.

State lawmakers are also close to passing a measure from state Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) allowing pregnant inmates to defer incarceration until six weeks after giving birth. Still, many advocates say the recent legislative actions on prisons fall short.

Ray Khalfani, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, noted state officials have shrunk funds for prison health care by about $4 million since 2020, all while touting more money to build new prisons.

“You can’t build your way out of the issues that are still taking place within the prison system,” Khalfani told State Affairs.

Advocates like Pamela Perkins Carn, a leader of the End Mass Incarceration Georgia Network, pressed for more transparency in state prisons, pointing to McLaurin’s ombudsman bill as one possible solution. Georgia can’t really tackle how to fix its prison problems – and potentially put tax dollars to better use – without first knowing what’s happening inside prisons, Perkins Carn said.

“It’s something the average person isn’t going to hear about or see unless you have an encounter with the system,” Perkins Carn told State Affairs. “And then you see you had no idea how hard it is to have a visit or to get books to someone or make sure medical needs are met.”

Join the Conversation

What do you want to know about Georgia’s prisons? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing: [email protected].

Want to contact your local state legislator about this issue? Find your legislator here.

Follow Key Players for This Story:

Georgia Department of Corrections: @georgiacorrections on Facebook, @GA_Corrections on Twitter

Southern Center for Human Rights: @southerncenterforhumanrights on Facebook, @southerncenter on Twitter

End Mass Incarceration Georgia Network: @emiganetwork on Facebook, 

Motherhood Beyond Bars: @motherhoodbeyondbars on Facebook, @MotherhoodBynd on Twitter

Georgia Budget & Policy Institute: @gabudget on Facebook, @GaBudget on Twitter