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Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to Coordinate Protest

by Sarah Wheaton

The prison protest has entered the wireless age.

Inmates in at least seven Georgia prisons have used contraband cellphones to coordinate a nonviolent strike this weekend, saying they want better living conditions and to be paid for work they do in the prisons.

Inmates said they would not perform chores, work for the Corrections Department's industrial arm or shop at prison commissaries until a list of demands are addressed, including compensation for their work, more educational opportunities, better food and sentencing rules changes.

The protest began Thursday, but inmates said that organizers had spent months building a web of disparate factions and gangs - groups not known to cooperate - into a unified coalition using text messaging and word of mouth.

Officials at the Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond on Sunday to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Smuggled cellphones have been commonplace in prisons for years; Charles Manson was caught with one in a California penitentiary this month. Officials worry that inmates will use them to issue orders to accomplices on the outside or to plan escape attempts.

But the Georgia protest appears to be the first use of the technology to orchestrate a grass-roots movement behind bars.

Reached on their cellphones inside several prisons, six participants in the strike described a feat of social networking more reminiscent of Capitol Hill vote-whipping than jailhouse rebellion.

Conditions at the state prisons have been in decline, the inmates said. But "they took the cigarettes away in August or September, and a bunch of us just got to talking, and that was a big factor," said Mike, an inmate at the Smith State Prison in Downing who declined to give his full name.

The organizers set a date for the start and, using contact numbers from time spent at other prisons or connections from the outside, began sending text messages to inmates known to hold sway.

"Anybody that has some sort of dictatorship or leadership amongst the crowds," said Mike, one of several prisoners who contacted The New York Times to publicize their strike. "We have to come together and set aside all differences, whites, blacks, those of us that are affiliated in gangs."

Now, Mike said, every dormitory at participating prisons has at least one point man with a phone who can keep the other inmates in the loop.

Miguel, another prisoner at Smith who also declined to give his full name, estimated that about 10 percent of all inmates had phones.

"We text very frequently," he said. "We try and keep up with what's going on in the news and what's going on at other facilities. Those are our voices."

They are also a source of profit to the people providing the contraband. Miguel said he paid $400 for a phone that would have cost $20 on the street. Mike said he bought his through a guard. "That's how a lot of us get our phones," Mike said.

Inmates said guards had started confiscating the phones, and they complained that hot water and heat had been turned off. The Corrections Department placed several of the facilities where inmates planned to strike under indefinite lockdown on Thursday, according to local news reports.

"We're hearing in the news they're putting it down as we're starting a riot, so they locked all the prison down," said an inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion who refused to give his name. But, he said, "We locked ourselves down."

The inmates contend that if they have a source of income in the prison and better educational opportunities to prepare them for release, violence and recidivism will go down. But the Department of Corrections has not publicly acknowledged the protest.

Mike said that the leaders were focused on telling inmates to remain patient, and not to consider resorting to violence.

The inmates' closest adviser outside prison walls is Elaine Brown, a longtime advocate for prisoners whose son is incarcerated at Macon State Prison, one of the other major protest sites.

A former Black Panther leader who is based in Oakland, Calif., Ms. Brown helped distill the inmate complaints into a list of demands. She held a conference call on Sunday evening to develop a strategy with various groups, including the Georgia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Nation of Islam.

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