Kristen Clarke, assistant US attorney general for civil rights, announced an investigation into Georgia prisons on Tuesday morning.
CNN  — 

The US Justice Department on Tuesday announced a statewide investigation into prisons in Georgia, focusing on prisoner-on-prisoner violence and sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff.

Kristen Clarke, who leads the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said the investigation will look into possible civil rights violations.

Clarke said the Justice Department found “significant justification” to open this investigation.

“For example, in 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide. There have been a reported 18 homicides so far in 2021,” Clarke said. “Reports of countless other violence, assaults, including stabbings and beatings, also have emerged from Georgia prisons.”

“Concerned Citizens, family members, and civil rights organizations, as well as photographs and videos linked to social media and other channels have highlighted widespread contraband weapons and open gang activity in the prisons,” Clarke added.

The Georgia Department of Corrections denied the allegations in a statement to CNN.

“The GDC is committed to the safety of all of the offenders in its custody and 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,” Timothy C. Ward, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said in the statement.

“This commitment includes the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners from sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. We cooperated fully with the USDOJ’s initial investigation in 2016 and are proud of the service and dedication of our team since then to perform during unprecedented challenges.”

Clarke also noted that more than 2 million people reside in prisons and jails across the country, and people of color are disproportionately represented among them.

“For example, in Georgia, the percentage of incarcerated people who are Black is nearly twice the percentage of Black residents in the state of Georgia overall. According to data from the Georgia Department of Corrections, the state’s prisoner population is 61% Black, so they make up about 32% of the population,” Clarke said.

The investigation will also address the devastating effects of “prison staff shortages, inadequate policies and training, and then the lack of accountability,” Clarke said.

“Understaffing in correctional facilities is a particularly acute problem. It can lead to inadequate supervision and violence. It can also prevent people from being able to access necessary medical and mental health care.”

A class-action lawsuit filed Friday by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP on behalf of people in solitary confinement in Georgia State Prison alleges prisoners are kept in feces and urine covered cells and not allowed to leave their cells for weeks or even months except to shower, and some are forced to go weeks at a time without a shower or bath because the prison is so short-staffed.

Several officials of the Georgia Department of Corrections and Georgia State Prison are named as defendants. Lori Benoit, a spokeswoman for the GDC, told CNN the department “does not comment on pending litigation.”

Federal law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, authorizes the Justice Department to investigate state prisons “to determine whether incarcerated people are subject to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations,” Clarke said.

“While this critical federal civil rights law has led to some progress, the urgent need for our work continues today,” Clarke said.

Georgia has the fourth-highest rate of incarceration, behind Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Last month, the Justice Department and the state of New Jersey announced a proposed consent decree to institute major changes at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women following a two-year investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.

CNN’s Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.