(IPS) Prisoners Coordinate Statewide Strike via Cellphones

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This article was first published by the Inter-Press Service at: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=53916

 

ATLANTA, Georgia, Dec 20, 2010 (IPS) – In what some are calling the largest prison strike in U.S. history, inmates in the state of Georgia coordinated a strike across multiple prison facilities using pre-paid cell phones.

After refusing to come out of their cells for as long as a week, many prisoners have now emerged. However, some are still refusing to come out, IPS has learned, and others who have come out are still refusing to report to work assignments until they are paid a living wage. 

Meanwhile, activists across Georgia have organised a grassroots response, and are attempting to support the prisoners from the outside. 

A team of activists and nongovernmental observers went in to Macon State Prison Monday to interview prisoners, observe conditions, and investigate prisoners’ initial complaints as well as complaints of retaliation. 

Demands included better medical care and nutrition, more educational opportunities, payment for the work they do in the prisons, better access to their families, reducing overcrowding in the prisons, and more opportunities for exercise. 

“The team went inside the prison, Macon State was the first one, to ask questions of staff and basically verify the inmates’ complaints,” said Bruce Dixon of the Black Agenda Report. 

“It’s significant we did get in to talk to the prisoners. The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) agreed to a process of document their demands and begin looking into what the jail conditions are, and to verify the truth of the [claims of] retaliation,” Dixon said. 

The GDC said that four prisons had been on lockdown, including Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena, and Smith State Prison in Glennville. 

However, the prisoners insisted in telephone conversations with journalists and activists that they were not actually on lockdown. They claimed that every morning the gates on their cells would open up, and every day they would shut them again and refuse to leave their cells. 

Prisoners coordinated the strike across as many as 11 Georgia prisons. Other facilities mentioned in various reports include Augusta State Medical Prison in Grovetown, Baldwin State Prison in Hardwick, Calhoun State Prison in Morgan, Hancock State Prison in Sparta, Rogers State Prison in Reidsville, Valdosta State Prison in Valdosta, and Ware State Prison in Waycross. 

The strike began on Dec. 9 and had largely ended on Dec. 16. 

“It was definitely an organic thing that grew inside the prison… The coalition was sort of formed in response to it,” Dixon said. 

Elaine Brown, a former leader of the Black Panther Party, has a friend whom she calls her son, who is locked up in the Georgia prison system. Brown told IPS that the prisoners in several facilities set the date of the protest themselves, and relied upon her to communicate about the strike to the general public. 

She believes the strike was a major success. 

“I put the word out there on the 9th of December. Now everybody is involved in it, we have now been a coalition around it. The strike wasn’t the issue, the demands were the issue, they’re still on the table,” Brown said. 

“It was probably greater than anything that has happened in this country in the rising up of oppressed groups in a unified and a strategically savvy way,” she said. 

Brown joined with Dixon and others in forming an ad hoc coalition called the Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners’ Rights. 

The Coalition includes groups like Black Agenda Report, the Green Party of Georgia, the Nation of Islam, and the state and national chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Since the beginning of the strike, the coalition has been holding conference calls to organise ways to support the prisoners from the outside. 

The delegation includes a representative of the Southern Center for Human Rights and one from the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The prisoners appear to have obtained the prepaid cell phones, with plans such as T-Mobile prepaid phone plans, from individual guards and were able to hide them in their cells. 

While prison strikes are somewhat common, the strike in Georgia has been quite significant in its scope. 

“It’s unusual [to occur] across institutions, and for more than a few hours,” Dixon said, adding that prisoners worked together across racial, ethnic, religious, and even “gang” lines. 

“There were multiple Black factions, the Muslims, the Rastafarians, the gangsters from different gangs, the Mexican factions, even the Aryan brotherhood,” Dixon said. 

“The question is, are they gonna get paid fairly?” Brown asked. 

Georgia’s prison system holds some 53,000 inmates. Nearly all of the work they do is unpaid. Prison wages vary from state to state, but are all a fraction of the federal minimum wage of 7.25 dollars per hour. 

(END / 2010)

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