by Clay Wadena
Thousands of prisoners in Georgia made history on Dec. 9 when they carried out what has been hailed as the largest prisoner strike in American history—refusing to work or leave their cells in 11 of the state’s prisons.
The prisoners issued nine demands that began with a call for a living wage for the work they perform and included demands for better educational and vocational opportunities, better health care, better food and living conditions, better access to their families, ending all cruel and inhumane punishments, and a more just parole process.
The strike lasted a week in most prisons, with isolated pockets of resistance still being reported later, and was an outstanding achievement for the prisoners’ rights movement even if their demands were not immediately met.
Prisoners in Georgia are standing up to a mighty force when they confront their state machinery, as Georgia leads the nation with the highest rate of adults that are under state control or supervision. According to the Pew Center on the States, one out of 13 adults in Georgia is in a prison or jail, or on parole or probation—higher than any other state.
Georgia nearly tripled its prison population between 1988 and 2009, and this included a disproportionate amount of African American inmates, who now make up 63% of Georgia’s prisoners but are only 30% of the state population. Of the Georgia inmates who make it out, two-thirds will be rearrested within three years of their release (such a high recidivism rate that even conservative Newt Gingrich was prompted to write an editorial calling for Georgia to focus on lowering it). Additionally, Georgia spends only $49 a day per prisoner, compared to a national average of $79.
On top of it all, Georgia is one of only a few states where the inmates are paid absolutely nothing for their labor (unless they have one of a handful of exclusive jobs that are not readily accessible to the general inmate population). Inmates perform road cleanup for states and local governments and they provide labor to prison-run businesses that make furniture, garments, and signs—but they receive nothing for it. Most inmates across the country work for pennies an hour doing the same thing, a pittance that can’t be considered fair in any way, but in places like Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas they don’t even get that chance.
Georgia politicians seemingly wouldn’t have it any other way, and displayed their disgust for the prisoners’ demands when interviewed by the press during and after the strike. Republican state senator Johnny Grant said, “If they want to get paid, they shouldn’t commit crimes . . . If we started paying inmates, we’d also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for.”
Democratic state representative Barbara Massey Reece agreed: “After all, they are behind those prison walls for a reason. They are there to make restitution to society for whatever their crime was. … I can’t see paying inmates anything. I would much rather take that money and put 25 more state troopers on the highway. … Most of the men that I have encountered on [unpaid] work details take real pride in their work and are appreciative of the chance to work. If they weren’t out working, they’d just be sitting behind the fence.”
Don’t be fooled by Ms. Reece’s claims; by issuing their own demands the prisoners have made sure that no politician can claim to speak for them and paint a rosy picture of modern-day slavery. And contrary to her view that prisoners “appreciated” working for free, the prisoners made it very clear that this issue was the biggest driving force of the entire strike.
It is important to note the desperate economic position these inmates are placed in by the system. They are not provided enough food and amenities to squeak out even a minimally sufficient life, and often come from families who can’t afford to keep money in their commissary account. Even for those inmates who can get money wired in, the monopoly on money transfers held by private company J-Pay takes a 10% commission and the commissary prices are high. If inmates would like to talk to their family members legally, it costs $55 a month for once weekly 15-minute phone conversations.
Normally, the meager conditions of prison life and the astronomical prices they pay for basic necessities are offset, very slightly, by the ability of inmates to earn a tiny amount of money doing work in or for the prison. In Georgia, however, inmates are not even able to provide for themselves in this hyper-exploited manner, despite the work they do.
With deplorable conditions and practically no institutional route of addressing them, the prisoners took it upon themselves to be heard, and put in a momentous amount of work to pull the strike off and bring their message to the public. This cannot be overstated. It is worth noting the different roadblocks these men faced and overcame, so what they have accomplished can be truly appreciated.
First, these prisoners had to overcome the divisions that normally prevent any type of unified inmate action. Prison administrations count on all forms of racial, sexual, economic, and street-organization violence to sow deep division among the prisoners and make them easier to control. In a testament to the organizers of this action, inmates in Georgia were able to overcome these divisions, which normally wreak havoc.
“It’s a universal, unified effort on the part of men who have been treated like slaves, whether Black, white, or Latino,” said Elaine Brown, spokesperson for the prisoners and former leader of the Black Panther Party.
Additionally, the prisoners had to coordinate both the protest action (in multiple prisons) and the media outreach from inside prisons, where all normal correspondence can be monitored. To accomplish this, they used contraband cell-phones, bought from prison guards anxious to cash in on the lucrative prison illicit market (where a $20 cell-phone can easily go for $350).
In the articles that were eventually written about the strike, much has been made of these cell-phones, both about the ingenuity of the prisoners and the illegal and high-priced nature of the phones themselves. It is worth noting, primarily, that these prisoners acquired and effectively used these phones under great physical and legal danger; being caught with one is a felony charge and might be accompanied by a ruthless beating from corrections officers.
Coordinating the protest action was done on cell-phones and by word of mouth. But without the cell-phones it would have been nearly impossible to overcome the initial media blackout of their protest action. After a couple days a few major outlets finally covered the prisoner strike, but this was only after the Georgia Dept. of Corrections (DOC) had declared that they had instituted a “lockdown,” and the story was generally reported as such (as opposed to a self-imposed work strike).
It was largely left to the alternative media (notably Black Agenda Report and “Democracy Now”), prisoners’ advocates like the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights (CCRPR), and the prisoners themselves to get the story out. The New York Times did not run a story on the strike until after the prisoners had contacted the paper themselves. But the prisoners took responsibility for advancing their message against all odds and had a fair amount of success given the initial blackout.
“The mere fact that this got the attention of the nation, that in itself is a lot, because once it got the attention of the nation, people began looking, people began inquiring. … It was powerful,” said Robert King, author and Black Panther Party member who organized in Louisiana prisons in the 1970s and spent decades in prison when he was framed by prison officials as a result.
The capitalist media’s hesitation to report on the strike prompted accusations from prison activists that they were purposely withholding the story to prevent the strike from spreading. And while the prisoners struggled to find a hearing for their voice outside of the prison walls, they also faced severe repression inside the walls.
In a statement released New Year’s Eve, the CCRPR detailed a severe reprisal beating administered on accused striker Terrance Bryant Dean at Macon State Prison by prison guards. On Dec. 16, the seventh day of the strike, Dean was reportedly carried from his cell cuffed at his hands and ankles, and beaten unconscious. He was then subsequently hospitalized. Reports of beatings aimed at breaking the strike were reaching activists in the CCRPR at this time, who then demanded that the DOC allow them to tour the affected prisons and talk to prisoners.
Even as the DOC allowed the CCRPR to tour the prisons they did not admit that at least one prisoner was hospitalized from a guard-administered beating. In addition to the plight of Terrance Dean and the strikers at large, the CCRPR has also stated concern for the 37 men that the DOC has identified as strike “conspirators,” who are likely being targeted for violence by the DOC. The CCRPR intends to release a full report on its investigations and the prison visits it has conducted.
Mainstream analysts believe that Georgia is currently facing $2 billion in budget cuts, and that the state is poised to cut services and funding to prisoners even further, rather than grant prisoners’ wishes. Refusing to negotiate with the prisoners on these issues—while raining terror and brutality upon them—could have tragic results, as prisoners have been quoted in the press to the effect that cooler heads prevailed this time as prisoners decided what course of action to take; but that without any change the next action may be guided by those who favor violent protest.
These prisoners need allies on the outside of the prison walls who will assist them in building a mass movement dedicated to overthrowing this system of modern-day slavery, these warehouses of human beings. If the DOC sparks a violent confrontation it could turn into a bloodbath, which would generally serve the interests of the oppressors at great cost of human life for the prisoners. The real conditions of these gulags must be exposed, and this unjust system must be torn down as the French once tore down that old symbol of their own imprisonment—the Bastille. Please join with activists such as those in Socialist Action as we educate, agitate, and organize to end this oppression!
> This article was originally published in the January 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.