Prisoners on strike in Georgia

December 13, 2010

Inmates in at least six prisons across the state of Georgia began a strike at the end of last week to demand better conditions, more educational opportunities, improved access to their families and decent pay for their prison labor.

According to news reports, prisoners were refusing to leave their cells or perform their jobs. As was published on December 13, the state of the strike was unclear--there were reports of increasing provocative violence by prison authorities in an attempt to regain control. Elaine Brown, a former leader of the Black Panthers and now a prison reform activist, said she had been in touch with several hundred prisoners via smuggled-in cell phones that are banned at the prison, but were used to organize the rebellion.

Bruce A. Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, reports on the state of the fight in this article that appeared at the beginning of last weekend.

THE PEACEFUL strike begun by inmates of several Georgia state prisons continued for a second day on Friday, according to family members of some of the participants. News stories by Associated Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and local TV stations in Macon and Atlanta quote state corrections who say several institutions were placed on lockdown beginning Thursday in anticipation of the inmate protest, on the initiative of wardens of those prisons.

Offices of the wardens at Hay's, Macon State, Telfair and Augusta State all referred our inquiries to the Department of Corrections public affairs officer, who so far has declined to return our repeated calls.

The prisoner strike in Georgia is unique, sources among inmates and their families say, because it includes not just Black prisoners, but Latinos and whites, too, a departure from the usual sharp racial divisions that exist behind prison walls.

Inmate families and other sources claim that when thousands of prisoners remained in their cells Thursday, authorities responded with violence and intimidation. Tactical officers rampaged through Telfair State Prison destroying inmate personal effects and severely beating at least six prisoners. Inmates in Macon State Prison say authorities cut the prisoners' hot water, and at Telfair, the administration shut off heat Thursday when daytime temperatures were in the 30s. Prisoners responded by screening their cells with blankets, keeping prison authorities from performing an accurate count, a crucial aspect of prison operations.

A cell in Hayes State Prison near Trion, Ga.
A cell in Hayes State Prison near Trion, Ga.

As of Friday, inmates at several prisons say they are committed to continuing the strike. “We are going to ride it,” the inmate press release quotes one, “till the wheels fall off. We want our human rights.”

The peaceful inmate strike is being led from within the prison. Some of those thought to be its leaders have been placed under close confinement.

The nine specific demands made by Georgia's striking prisoners in two press releases pointedly reflect many of the systemic failures of the U.S. regime of mass incarceration and the utter disconnection of U.S. prisons from any notions of protecting or serving the public interest. Prisoners are demanding, in their own words, decent living conditions, adequate medical care and nutrition, educational and self-improvement opportunities, just parole decisions, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, and better access to their families.

IT’S A fact that Georgia prisons skimp on medical care and nutrition behind the walls, and that in Georgia's prisons, recreational facilities are non-existent, and there are no educational programs available beyond GED, with the exception of a single program that trains inmates to be Baptist ministers.

What you can do

Prisoners are asking the public to call the Georgia Department of Corrections and the individual prisons to express concern for the welfare of the prisoners: Macon State Prison at 478-472-3900; Hays State Prison is at 706-857-0400; Telfair State Prison at 229-868-7721; Baldwin State Prison at 478-445-5218; Valdosta State Prison at 229-333-7900; and Smith State Prison is at 912-654-5000.

The Georgia Department of Corrections can be contacted at 478-992-5246.

Inmates know that upon their release they will have no more education than they did when they went in, and will be legally excluded from Pell Grants and most kinds of educational assistance, leaving them and their families potentially locked into a disadvantaged economic status for life.

Despite the single biggest predictor of successful reintegration into society being sustained contact with family and community, Georgia's prison authorities make visits and family contact needlessly difficult and expensive.

Georgia no longer allows families to send funds via U.S. postal money orders to inmates. It requires families to send money through J-Pay, a private company that rakes off nearly 10 percent of all transfers.

Telephone conversations between Georgia prisoners and their families are also a profit centers for another prison contractor, Global Tel-Link, which extracts about $55 a month for a weekly 15-minute phone call from cash-strapped families. It's hard to imagine why the state cannot operate reliable payment and phone systems for inmates and their families with public employees at a lower cost, except that this would put contractors, who probably make hefty contributions to local politicians, out of business.

Besides being big business, prisons are public policy. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but accounts for almost a quarter of its prisoners. African Americans are one-eighth this nation's population, but make up almost half the locked down.

The nation's prison population increased more than 450 percent in the generation beginning about 1981. It wasn't about crime rates, because those went up, and then back down. It wasn't about rates of drug use, since African Americans have the same rates of drug use as whites and Latinos. Since the 1980s, the nation has undertaken a well-documented policy of mass incarceration, focused primarily though not exclusively on African Americans.

The good news is that public policies are ultimately the responsibility of the public to alter, to change or to do away with. America's policy of mass incarceration is overdue for real and sustained public scrutiny. A movement has to be built on both sides of the walls that will demand an end to the prison industry and the American policy of mass incarceration.

That movement will have to be outside the Republican and Democratic Parties. Both are responsible for building this system, and both rely on it to sustain their careers. The best Democrats could do on the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder cocaine disparity this year, with a Black president in the White House and thumping majorities in the House and Senate, was to reduce it to 18-to-1, and then only by lengthening the sentences for powder cocaine. On this issue, Democrats and Republicans are part of the problem, not the solution.

As this article goes to print Saturday morning, it's not known whether the strike will continue a third day. With prison officials not talking and corporate media ignoring prisoners not just this week but every day, outlets like Black Agenda Report and the web site on which you're reading this are among the chief means that inmates and their families have of communicating with the public.

First published at Black Agenda Report.

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