On December 9th, inmates in the Georgia state prisons started the biggest U.S. prison strike in history. Thousands of prisoners in seven prisons took part, refusing to leave their cells and follow the daily work routine. Across the prison system, across racial lines, and under the noses of the prison authorities, thousands of prisoners have stood up for decent living conditions and dignity.
Georgia’s prisons are some of the worst in the U.S. Cells are overcrowded, packing prisoners into confined spaces like sardines. Prisoners are forced to work, doing the maintenance and servicing of the prison for little or no pay. The guards are corrupt and violent, instigating fights between prisoners for their amusement. Prisoners are forced to pay outrageous costs for the most minimal health care. On top of that most prisoners are denied access to programs for education beyond obtaining a GED. Overall Georgia spends $10,000 less per year per prisoner than the national average. The lack of funding shows in how prisoners are treated.
How They Organized
How could such a strike be organized? Prisoners are locked down and under surveillance, divided into gangs and divided by race. But the prisoners overcame these barriers. Inmates turned the corruption of the prison system against itself. Prison guards sold illegal cell phones, often for as much as $800 a piece. The prisoners used the cell phones to build a network. They reached out across racial lines. Black, Latino, and white prisoners together were able to organize under the noses of the prison authorities.
The Demands of the Prisoners
The prisoners made their demands clear – decent conditions, dignity and opportunity, the basic needs of any human being free or otherwise:
- A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK – Work should be paid.
- EDUCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES – Greater access to education in order to improve life in prison and opportunities on the outside.
- DECENT HEALTH CARE – No more paying outrageous costs for health care.
- AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: An end to cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
- DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Heating in winter and air conditioning in the summer.
- NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Decent food with vegetables and protein.
- ACCESS TO FAMILIES: Human contact with family and loved ones. An end to high costs for phone calls.
- JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The prisoners demand a real chance to get out. As of now the parole boards deny parole automatically for most prisoners.
An Example and a Threat to the Powerful
The prisoners’ strike came to an end after six days. Prisoners decided in an organized way that they had demonstrated their power and delivered their demands. The strike was a powerful threat. It forced the state government to take notice. In fact they were forced to sit down in negotiations with prisoners’ representatives and allies outside the prison – a committee led by Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther whose son is a prisoner in Georgia.
The prisoners’ strike is an example that applies everywhere, both in prisons and outside their walls. Most of the prisoners’ demands are demands that every one of us has for ourselves and our families. If prisoners, divided in so many ways and under the surveillance of the prison system can organize themselves, we can do the same.
Next Newsletter in January 2011