US: Georgia state prisoners strike for human rights

After December’s mass action, build a mass movement to end the "new Jim Crow" policy of mass incarceration!

"The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history." (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; p.8)

For a few days in December 2010, the power of collective action across race, ethnicity, religion, and gang affiliation was on display when Georgia state prisoners went on strike. According to Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party leader and mother of a Macon State prisoner: “the inmates [were] protesting the lack of fruits and vegetables in their meals, no pay for their work, poor living conditions and parole decisions.”

The inmates also demanded adequate medical care, real access to family and education opportunities.

The work stoppage and non-violent civil disobedience by the prisoners began on 9 December 2010, to oppose the inhumane conditions within the Georgia State prison system. The state prisons on lockdown were Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena and Smith State Prison in Glennville. The organized resistance reportedly reached other state prisons.

The Georgia penal system has the highest incarceration rate (16%), surpassing the national average. According to the State of Georgia’s own statistics, over 8,000 prisoners, or almost a quarter of the prison population, are incarcerated for drug crimes. 66% of those newly incarcerated in 2009 were black. There are 30 prisons in the state system, housing almost 53,000 men and women.

Slavery by another name

As the racist segregation policies, known as ‘Jim Crow’, were dismantled by the gains of the militant black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the prisons were increasingly used by declining US capitalism as a method of control for African-American surplus labour in society. “Between 1970 and 2000 the number of people incarcerated in the United States skyrocketed from 200,000 to 2.3 million, a ten-fold increase. In 1930, 75% of all prison admissions were Caucasian and 22% were African-Americans. In 1992, 29% of the prison admissions were Caucasian; while 51% were African-American and 20% were Hispanic. Today, two-thirds of the prisoners are African-Americans and Hispanics.” (Avakian S, “Racial Disparity Among the Incarcerated,” Law, Social Justice& Global Development Journal)

This is a complete reversal of the incarceration rates under the racially segregated US society of the 1930s. Today, the rate of incarceration of black men is four times higher than in apartheid South Africa.

Prisons are warehouses for the working class and poor, left behind by the neo-liberal agenda of American capitalism. The onset of the economic downturn, a weak and jobless recovery, and the resulting perpetual mass unemployment have created conditions of misery and uncertainty for millions of working people and youth, particularly for people of color.

It is important to remember that the incarcerated population is not counted in unemployment statistics. The building of prisons as a way of creating jobs in many economically depressed rural communities has been a boon to local elites. Prisons have been increasingly outsourced to private corporations for profit while also enabling the true face of unemployment to remain hidden.

Organizing in prison

Organized through the use of cell phones, text messaging, and word of mouth, the refusal of the prisoners to leave their cells to carry out the unpaid labor duties around the state exposed the stark realities of being a prisoner in America. The inmates’ core demands were for decent living conditions, adequate medical care and nutrition, educational and self-improvement opportunities, just parole decisions, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, and better access to their families.

The strike is a tactic historically used by the labour movement. It is a militant call to stop business as usual and challenge the bosses. The prisoners have also shown their power in this strike by stopping business as usual, cutting across the divide-and-conquer tactics of big business and the prison system, finding commonality in the quest for human dignity, justice and reintegration into their communities.

During the strike, the inmates faced repression – prisoners’ property was destroyed, hot and cold water was shut off, some prisoners were physically attacked, and some were placed in solitary confinement in “the hole.”

Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, stated during the strike: “We are asking for involvement from the Department of Justice to ensure that the civil rights of these prisoners are protected. It is essential that the Georgia state prison system find a peaceful resolution to this non-violent work stoppage. The inmates’ requests for educational opportunities, pay for their work and access to their families are not unreasonable. Providing these opportunities can help reduce recidivism and ensure that people who have paid their debt to society can return to their communities and become responsible citizens.”

Protest and solidarity campaigns must be built to support the prisoners’ demands, like the newly formed Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights. Governor Sonny Perdue and Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens must get the message loud and clear: “Hands off the prisoners!” These campaigns should help encourage mass participation by organizing a march on the Georgia state house and governor’s office to demand justice for the prisoners. This type of strike must spread throughout the country to every prison, where the core demands of Georgia prisoners should be taken up and adapted by other struggling inmates to serve as a rallying cry against the inhumane conditions facing all prisoners.

To safeguard the prisoners from abuse, we must build a mass movement to end the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration as social policy. It is urgent that community organizations, unions, social justice activists and the left support full funding for education for prisoners, abolishing the death penalty and ending the racist drug war. We need a broad movement that will enlist young people and working people, particularly people of color, to challenge the naked class rule and racial oppression of big business capitalism. We must break from the parties of big business – both Democrats and Republicans – who are openly promoting the horrible conditions of poverty, unemployment, and violence in our communities, and start to build a mass working-class political alternative. A movement that demands economic justice and real social uplift will strike a mighty blow to decaying American capitalism.

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