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Monday, January 17, 2011

Georgia Prison Strike Summary

I wrote this article for Street Speech, condensing the reading I've done on the subject into a single document. It's written for a newspaper, so there's minimum editorializing.  

On the morning of Thursday Dec 9th, thousands of inmates in six prisons in Georgia refused to leave their cells or go their work assignments. This non-violent sit-down protest lasted 6 days and has been recognized as the largest prison strike in US history. The organizing effort continues to this day. According to one inmate interviewed by Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the prisoners only called off the strike because officials couldn't respond to the striker's demands while they were on strike. Officials were faced with hiring outside workers to maintain the prison, which normally depends on unpaid inmate labor to function.

Some inmate organizers remain on strike and a number of outside groups, including the NAACP and newly formed Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights (CCRPR) are calling for reviews of the system from the outside. Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) have not publically acknowledged the striker or their demands.

The strikers compare conditions in GA prisons with being treated like animals and slaves. Their demands include a living wage for work, educational and self-improvement opportunities, decent healthcare, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, access to families and just parole decisions. The strike comes after months of deteriorating conditions and over-crowding in GA prisons, where budget cuts have led some wardens to begin triple-bunking prisoners. Similar conditions exist in prisons nationwide, including many of Ohio’s 31 prisons.

This prisoner strike is not only unique or historical in terms of size-- the organizing effort is also unprecedented in its racial diversity and apparent lack of structured leadership.

The strike included many racial and religious groups. Prison life is typically plagued with violent racial conflict. Some former inmates and prisoner advocates have long argued that prison officials encourage this racial factionalism to prevent unity and facilitate control of the inmate population. An interview with an anonymous striker in Black Adgenda Report supports these claims "They want to break up the unity we have here... We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground."

Elaine Brown, former Black Panther and founder of the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform has been the public spokesperson for the strike. She maintains that the prison strike was self-organized on the inside. Inmates contacted her after getting organized for help publicizing the strike and drafting the list of demands. Much of the organizing effort was coordinated via contraband cellphones.

When the strike started officials put the prisons on “lock-down” confining inmates to their cells, denying visitation, telephone and commissary access. Four days later the Georgia Department of Corrections issued a press release that claimed the strike was a small protest but that lockdown would remain in effect until security assessments were completed. Inmates maintain that the lockdown was unnecessary as strike was non-violent. One 20-year old inmate at Hayes State Prison insisted "we locked ourselves down” when interviewed by the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Ms Brown and others received reports and interviews from text messages and calls from inmates’ contraband phones. Including reports publicized in the Irish Times on Tues Dec 14th that at least six prisoners were beaten at Augusta State Prison, some with broken ribs and one “beyond recognition.” Ms Brown relayed reports that, “[t]hey sent swat teams into cells to destroy people’s property, pushed people around, put dogs on people.” Brown also says guards have used drug testing as a tactic to humiliate and demoralize strikers, “[t]hey’ve done it out in the cold. The men have to stand outside and are being told to drop their pants so the guards can manhandle them and force them to urinate.”

On Dec 18th Coalition partners met with six officials from the Georgia DOC to discuss concerns arising from the strike. Prison officials deny knowing of any cracked ribs or beatings of inmates. They reported that during the lockdown they confiscated 126 cellphones and 101 weapons and they transferred 37 "instigators" to administrative segregation in three different Georgia Prisons. There appears to be little or no discussion of the inmates demands.

On Sat January 1st, a story surfaced about one inmate, named Terrance Dean, who was secretly transfered over 100 miles to an Atlanta hospital for treatment during the strike. The Georgia DOC failed to inform Dean's family of his condition and have delayed visitation repeatedly. The ACLU, Georgia Green Party and Dean's family suspect the prison guards are responsible for Dean's hospitalization. They are demanding visitation and an explaination.

At the close of the strike the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an interview with an inmate organizer at Smith State prison who was concerned that if the demands from this non-violent protest are not met, the inmates might resort to other measures. “We did it peacefully... but these guys are to the point that if this don’t work, they’re going to go about it the way they know best.” Ms Brown also expressed concern that the guards might “trigger an escalation to a violent confrontation... [guards] know they can put it down, because they can start killing people.” The inmate interviewed in the AJC seemed prepared for that possibility, he said “if you have five prisons popping off, you can’t send the tactical squad to all prisons. You’ll have to send the National Guard and by then it’ll be too late.”

The Georgia strike may be the begining of a new wave of unrest. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 7 million people were under supervision by correctional authorities in 2009 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.28 million of them in prison or jail. As budgets are cut nationwide, conditions in these prisons are getting worse.

Prisoners accross the country describe their incarceration as slavery and a denial of their basic human rights. These prisoners have extremely limited options for asserting their rights, demands or geting their voices heard. The mainstream media coverage of this historical strike was scarce, often simply repeating the Georgia DOC's press releases or focusing on the use of contraband cellphones and the potential for violence. The Georgia DOC's response has clearly focused on punnishing inmates and further hampering their ability to organize or speak, rather than taking their demands seriously.

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