Over 18 months ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into an unprecedented rise in prisoner homicides within Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) facilities. Over seven years ago, it began an investigation into the rampant assaults of LGBTQ prisoners on GDC’s watch. Prisoners are still waiting for anything to change.
Per the widespread consensus among GDC prisoners, the only tangible sign that anything’s being investigated at all has been one-off DOJ site visits at a handful of facilities. So little impact has DOJ’s involvement had that gang-related violence, leaving at least two people dead, erupted at one prison while DOJ was on the premises.
On March 27, DOJ investigators were visiting Smith State Prison when an ongoing gang war spanning Smith and four other GDC facilities led to what prisoners described as a “bloodbath.” As a result, GDC implemented a temporary lockdown of all seven of its highest-security prisons, including Smith. Five helicopters and four ambulances were dispatched, according to prisoner backchannels.
All GDC staff were briefed on the incident. Wakia, a GDC field officer whose name has been changed at their request, told Filter that at least two and possibly three deaths were attributed to the gang war that day, along with at least nine people injured. Prisoners reached by Filter reported three deaths and 10 injured. DOJ declined to answer Filter‘s questions for this article; GDC did not respond to request for comment.
“The first person who died was someone known to be one of the top Hispanic community guys in the prison system,” Wakia said. “Money, as always, played a part; but this was a vendetta against Mexicans prisoners that started over an immigration comment related to a story on the news … nasty words were exchanged and deaths quickly started following.”
The violence associated with this most recent gang war peaked in late March through early April; less-frequent attacks continue. According to multiple prisoners, including some housed in the impacted facilities, GDC’s primary response during this time has been to place Hispanic prisoners in administrative segregation.
In terms of the overall rise in violence prisoners have experienced over the past several years, GDC’s response has been to crack down on contraband cell phones. These allow prisoners to communicate with each other and with outside advocates, including posting footage and other updates to social media.
As DOJ investigations continue, prisoners and the broader public remain in the dark about what changes could result, or when. Most of the investigating has seemed to consist of document requests—which GDC has done its best to obstruct, in keeping with its well-known distaste for transparency.
There have been at least two other instances of gang-related mass violence in 2023 alone, according to prisoners reached by Filter.
Recently, DOJ appears to have incrementally picked up the pace of its latest investigation, in that a few of the more notoriously violent facilities have received site visits. Prisoners report knowing their facility is on deck because fresh coats of paint will suddenly appear on the walls, and they temporarily get the real food trays back rather than the Styrofoam ones GDC supplies them with the rest of the time.
People incarcerated inside GDC facilities are desperate. The ongoing understaffing crisis allows the tide of homicides and suicides continue to rise, despite constant pleas by prisoners and their loved ones to send in the Georgia National Guard. LGBTQ prisoners, disabled prisoners, “indigent” prisoners—so impoverished many are forced to sleep outside, even in winter—are among those regularly targeted for violence. Meanwhile, the drug supply has devolved into chaos; food is unaffordable; health care is functionally non-existent.
“The recent outbreak of gang violence … highlights the urgent need to address the growing problem of gang-related incidents within the GDC,” BT, the pseudonym of an incarcerated activist and spokesperson for the advocacy group Georgia Prisoners Speak, told Filter. “Particularly at Smith State Prison, where the Department of Justice was investigating potential civil rights violations of this very nature at the time of the latest incident.”
Top photograph via Georgia Department of Corrections. Inset images courtesy of Anonymous