Justice Department launches probe of conditions in Georgia prisons

ATLANTA – The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday it has opened a statewide investigation into conditions inside Georgia’s prisons.

The investigation will examine whether the state provides prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.

The agency also will continue an existing investigation into whether Georgia provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other prisoners who identify with the LGBTQ community reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“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 was sparked by complaints from civil rights groups and others who have expressed concerns about inmate safety.

Clarke said at least 26 prisoners died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide last year, and 18 have died so far in 2021.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., also raised concerns about Georgia prisons earlier this year during a Judiciary Committee hearing into President Joe Biden’s nomination of Merrick Garland to serve as attorney general.

Specifically, Ossoff cited the treatment of prisoners at the South Fulton Jail. He read from a plaintiff’s brief in a federal lawsuit against the facility filed by a nonprofit organization.

“The cells were covered in bodily fluids, rust, and mold,” Ossoff read from the brief. “In these conditions, the inmates deteriorated, leaving them incoherent, screaming unintelligibly, laying catatonic, banging their heads against walls, and repeatedly attempting suicide.”

Ossoff went on to urge then-nominee Garland to make securing the human rights of incarcerated Americans a top priority.

Clarke said the new investigation is the Justice Department’s second into prison conditions in Georgia. The agency launched an investigation into sexual violence against lesbian, gay and transgender inmates at the hands of staff and other prisoners, which remains ongoing, she said.

All three U.S. attorney’s offices in Georgia said they would cooperate with the probe.

“Individuals sentenced to prison in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities deserve to be treated humanely,” said Kurt R. Erskine, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

“Our office is committed to ensuring state prisoners are safe while serving their sentences. We look forward to working cooperatively with the Georgia Department of Corrections to ensure the safety of all individuals in its prisons.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) responded Wednesday with the following statement: “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.

“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 [Justice Department’s] initial investigation in 2016 and are proud of the service and dedication of our team since then to perform during unprecedented challenges.”

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Democrats call for mask mandates on college campuses

The Capitol building in Atlanta looms on “crossover” eve on March 12, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Democrats on the Georgia House Higher Education Committee urged Gov. Brian Kemp Monday to drop his opposition to mask mandates and leave the decision to administrators at the state’s public colleges and universities.

The lawmakers’ plea came as University System of Georgia professors and students launched a weeklong series of demonstrations on campuses across the state demanding mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We need our leaders to fight against the virus, not against our students and faculty,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn.

“A leader makes decisions,” added Rep. Rhonda Burnough, D-Riverdale. “Georgia needs a leader, not a follower.”

Kemp has held firm against imposing statewide mask mandates on either college campuses or K-12 classrooms in Georgia, criticizing such requirements as divisive.

He and other Republican governors also have strongly objected to an executive order President Joe Biden issued late last week requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and any employers with 100 or more employees to make sure they get the shots or are tested regularly for the virus.

GOP opponents have argued the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration lacks the legal authority to enforce such workplace mandates, and a legal challenge is expected.

Last week, university system Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney defended Kemp’s position on mask mandates. She said campus administrators have worked hard to put all necessary health and safety protocols in place for students returning for in-person classes this semester.

The system is encouraging but not requiring students and professors to wear masks and get vaccinated.

But Clark, who holds a doctorate in microbiology from Emory University, said nothing works to prevent the spread of COVID-19 better than making mask wearing and vaccinations mandatory.

“We have data [showing] that mask mandates work. We also know vaccines work,” she said. “The more people we have vaccinated on our campuses, the better we’re able to stop the virus.”

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia lawmakers want agriculture department involved in cannabis oil program

ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Agriculture should play a role in the state’s fledgling medical marijuana program, a member of a legislative oversight committee said Monday.

“This is an agricultural product. We’re an agricultural state,” Georgia Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, said during the inaugural meeting of the Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee. “Having them involved going forward is a good thing.”

Gravley was chief sponsor of legislation the General Assembly passed two years ago creating a state commission to award licenses to companies to grow marijuana and convert the leaf crop into low-THC cannabis oil.

The oil is intended to treat patients with a variety of diseases including cancer, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mitochondrial disease and sickle-cell anemia. 

The 2019 law also established a legislative oversight committee to monitor the program. But the oversight panel didn’t meet for the first time until Monday due to delays the seven-member state commission has encountered getting the program off the ground.

The commission took until this summer to award cannabis oil production licenses to six companies.

Two “Class 1” licensees will be authorized to grow marijuana under close supervision in up to 100,000 square feet of space. Four other companies received “Class 2” licenses limiting them to no more than 50,000 square feet of growing space.

While Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has been a strong supporter of the state’s hemp farming program, he has been cool toward the Peach State getting into the cannabis oil business.

However, with Black now seeking next year’s Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, Georgia likely will have a new agriculture chief after the 2022 elections.

Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, said Utah’s agriculture department is playing an active role in that state’s cannabis oil program, which Georgia is looking to as a model.

Both states permit only low-THC in cannabis oil, far below a level that would make a user “high,” and neither permit recreational use of marijuana.

Watson said getting the agriculture department involved in Georgia’s program is “definitely a conversation to be had.”

The commission, meanwhile, has been working on responses to seven protests filed by companies whose bids for Class 1 licenses were rejected and 14 protests filed by bidders rejected for Class 2 licenses.

While that process continues, Gravley said the oversight committee should move as quickly as possible to identify labs that can test the licensees’ cannabis oil for quality and compliance with the low-THC requirement.

“Having a variety of labs available to cultivators would be a good thing,” he said. “There are those who are in need of this oil.”

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Democrats pushing bill linking public transit to affordable housing

A passenger disembarks from a MARTA train at the Buckhead Station in Atlanta.

ATLANTA – Public transit projects for the first time would receive federal funding based on their connectivity to affordable housing under legislation proposed Friday by several members of Georgia’s congressional delegation.

The Public Transportation Expansion Act is sponsored in the Senate by Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives include Democratic Reps. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, Carolyn Bourdeax of Suwanee and Hank Johnson of Stone Mountain.

The bill would establish a federal grant program to fund public transportation expansion to serve low-income communities and connect affordable housing with transit networks.

It also, for the first time in decades, would let large transit systems use federal funds for operating expenses.

The legislation was added to the massive budget reconciliation bill now making its way through Congress.

“I am championing historic transit investments in the reconciliation bill because mobility is essential for opportunity, health, and quality of life — especially in communities that have been historically neglected,” Ossoff said.

“This legislation will build public transportation to serve residents in Georgia’s low-income neighborhoods, connecting affordable housing with health care, education, and employment centers while protecting our environment by reducing air pollution.”

“Connected communities are thriving communities,” added Williams, a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. “For too long, Black, Brown, and low-income communities have been left behind in transit expansion. … This legislation is a direct line to economic opportunity for everyone, no matter your ZIP Code or your bank account.”

The budget reconciliation bill faces an uncertain future in Congress. Because of the process being used to consider the legislation, it must receive support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate – with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris – in order to pass.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has expressed concerns that the nation can’t afford the legislation’s $3.5 trillion price tag, while progressive Democrats are seeking an even larger spending measure.

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia farmers finding new market in rural hospitals

ATLANTA – Last week’s meeting of a legislative committee looking for ways to improve rural Georgia’s economy was full of discouraging statistics depicting losses in population, failing schools and inadequate health care.

But in the midst of that gloom and doom, members of the Georgia House Rural Development Council got a glimpse of fledgling efforts by a nonprofit that is helping farmers find new markets for their products and could help reinvigorate Georgia’s textile industry.

The Georgia Rural Hospital Food Collaborative was launched last May to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, pork and beef, and even medical scrubs to rural hospitals and nursing homes.

“Not only is it good for hospitals. It’s good for nursing homes,” said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health Care, which represents rural hospitals in Georgia. “It’s good economic development.”

The food collaborative is a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted supply chains Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers rely on to get their highly perishable crops to market.

HomeTown Health Care has partnered with Healthcare Services Group, which manages hospital dining and nutritional services, to cut out the middleman and supply fruits and vegetables directly to hospitals and nursing homes.

Sixteen rural hospitals and nursing home are participating in the program, David Bridges, interim director of the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity, told members of the Rural Development Council Sept. 1.

Offering fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices boosts the bottom lines of rural facilities often operating on thin margins, said Bridges, who also serves as president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tlfton.

“If they have to choose between paying for food or nurses, we want them to pay the nurses,” he said.

“The patients in the hospitals love it,” Lewis added. “It’s doing really well.”

The same supply chain issues face Georgia beef and pork producers, making it difficult to ship cattle and pigs raised here to out-of-state processers in a timely manner.

Lewis said the Miller County Development Authority provided the solution, offering to purchase a local slaughterhouse and lease it to the food collaborative.

“We’ve got farms lined up to have their beef processed,” Lewis said.

Another project HomeTown Health and the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity are involved in holds potential for reviving a textile industry that has lost thousands of jobs to overseas outsourcing for decades.

Working with Swainsboro-based textile manufacturer America Knits, the two have launched Field to Closet, an initiative to provide 100% cotton medical scrubs to Georgia hospitals at no cost. Thus far, 16 rural hospitals have signed on.

The project spins Georgia-grown cotton into yarn at Parkdale Mills in Rabun Gap, weaves the yarn into fabric in North Carolina, and arrives at the America Knits plant for final production. As an additional benefit, the fabric is treated with an antimicrobial chemical that inhibits the growth of bacteria and has been shown in lab tests to destroy viruses.

“There was a time when an end-to-end U.S. supply chain for cotton garments would have been considered a pipedream,” said Steve Hawkins, CEO of America Knits.

“Working on this project aligns perfectly with our focus on providing prosperity for rural smaller communities and creating quality, environmentally sustainable products in the United States.”

Lewis envisions expanding the medical scrubs project to all sorts of cotton clothing as a way to “reshore” cotton production back from overseas. He said several major companies are interested in investing, including Ralph Lauren and Nike.

“If we could track [cotton] from the point of the seed all the way to a new cotton product … we can bring cotton back to the United States,” Lewis said. “We’ve got every part of the cluster to make re-shoring a reality.”

This story available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.