Last week a diverse group of nonviolent protesters across Georgia
stood up for their rights, calling for decent wages, better social
services and respect for their civil liberties. It didn't take long for
the government to crack down on the demonstrations, however: the
protesters were already in prison.
The uprising of Georgia inmates on December 9
defied the stereotype of the chaotic "prison riot" in the public
imagination. Yet neither did "Lockdown for Liberty" fit within the
conventional model of civil disobedience or industrial action. But when
the inmates in at least six different prisons
refused to leave their cells to report to work and other activities
that day, a strike began. And it effectively paralyzed a small chunk of
the bureaucratic monstrosity of America's prison system.
The incarcerated have historically filled the dregs of the American workforce,
an emblem of racial subjugation often invisible in the politics of
labor and social policy. It was against this hidden legacy of
exploitation that the Georgia inmates, with the support of the NAACP and
other civil rights advocates, raised issues
common to incarcerated people nationwide: abusive treatment, degrading
living conditions, a lack of accountability in the administration and
parole authorities, and a lack of basic educational and social services
Pointedly invoking the term "slave"
to describe the circumstances under which they toiled, the strikers
showed how historically entrenched racial divisions play out today in
the black-white disparities throughout the criminal justice system.
Still, Georgia protesters included Latinos and whites as well as blacks,
in a joint effort to resist and challenge structural injustices.
Their demands were hardly radical, but rather, embodied mainstream standards
for reasonable and humane treatment: protection from cruel and unusual
punishment by officers, affordable medicine when they're sick, and above
all, fair pay for their labor. According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, "state law forbids paying inmates except for one limited program."
Final Call quoted reports trickling out from inmates earlier this week:
One brother told me, ‘We will ride until the wheels fall off,' and
that's been the sentiment amongst the men when they started this," said
Elaine Brown, a spokesperson for the strike... Part of our purpose for
doing this is that
Georgia is the only state that does not pay it's inmates at all.
Some guys in here work seven days a week and they don't get a dime,"
said Dondito, one of the strikers, who requested anonymity.
You can almost hear the zero-tolerance conservatives in Washington
now: how dare these criminals demand better treatment from the state?
The official reaction was to immediately curtail what few resources the
inmates possess. According to news reports,
prison staff locked down four facilities, attempted to transfer out the
leading troublemakers, cut off the hot water, and revoked cell phone
privileges (yes, according to Facing South, "Cell phones are contraband in Georgia's prisons, but widely available for sale from correctional officers.")
The strike was called off after six days, following reports of violent crackdowns and rising fears that the situation would escalate. But by then, the inmates had made their mark with one of the largest prison protests in U.S. history.
The decision to end the strike, moreover, seems like the beginning of
another phase in the inmates' collective action, now that they've caught
national political attention. The AJC reported:
an inmate at Smith State Prison in Glenville said in a telephone
interview prisoners had agreed to end their "non-violent" protest to
allow administrators time to focus on their concerns rather than
operating the institutions without inmate labor.
"We've ended the protest," said Mike, a convicted armed robber who was
one of the inmates who planned and coordinated the work stoppage. "We
needed to come off lock down so we can go to the law library and start
... the paperwork for a [prison conditions] lawsuit.
The proactive militancy of the strike organizers underscores the the
fact that the entire action not only proceeded largely without violence,
but also spread rapidly through several institutions thanks to careful
planning and clandestine technology--messages spread via cell, expanding the traditional jailhouse grapevine.
It may be a while before we see another prisoner strike going viral, as the potential for prison-based activism
remains constrained by the criminal-justice power structure. But the
Georgia inmates helped change the public face of Americans who've been
caught up in the country's incarceration industry. Under the most
oppressive of conditions, they used disciplined strike tactics to align
their grievances with broader struggles for human rights.
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It makes sense. Prison is the everyday reality lived by a huge swath
of the population (roughly one in one hundred, according to recent surveys) Meanwhile, the impact of prison labor leaves a hidden imprint on our economy as well. Noah Zatz of UCLA Law School has estimated that:
well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are
working full time in jails and prisons throughout the United States.
Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially
in state universities and the federal government, is a major prison
labor product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at corporate call
centers, make body armor for the U.S. military, and manufacture prison
chic fashion accessories, in addition to the iconic task of stamping
As a captive workforce and disenfranchised populace, the prison
system reaches deep into American society, and the distance between the
people on the inside and those on the outside is increasingly a matter
of luck--whether you're unfortuate enough to have been born the wrong
color or in the wrong neighborhood. If the movement launched by the
Georgia inmates, and their demands for dignity, look surprisingly
familiar, there's a good reason for that: they are us.
For more information, follow the Black Agenda Report's ongoing coverage of the Georgia prison activists.
The strikers' demands, which they continue to press with state officials, are as follows:
A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC
demands prisoners work for free.
EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For
the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for
education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and
DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the Eighth Amendment
prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies
adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most
minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering. AN
END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the
Eighth Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments
for minor infractions of rules.
DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia
prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with
little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.
NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.
AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities
of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper
ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands
of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges
and innumerable barriers to visitation.
JUST PAROLE DECISIONS:
The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the
majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.