Day 4-Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to Coordinate Protest

Georgia Prisoners’ Strike: “We locked ourselves down.”

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway | December 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm

In a protest that appears to be spreading through Georgia’s prison system, inmates are striking for better conditions. One interesting facet of this rare prison strike, which reaches across multiple facilities and across racial and factional lines, is the participants’ use of self-imposed lockdown to serve their own goals.

Lockdown, in which prisoners are confined to their cells for up to 24 hours a day, is routinely imposed on inmates for punishment or as a “security” measure. In this case, however, prisoners are refusing to leave their cells until their demands are taken seriously. The Georgia Corrections Department’s only response so far, ironically, has been to place the affected prisons on lockdown. As the New York Times reported:

“We’re not coming out until something is done. We’re not going to work until something is done,” said one inmate at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville. He refused to give his name because he was speaking on a banned cellphone…

The Corrections Department placed several of the facilities where inmates planned to strike under indefinite lockdown on Thursday, according to local 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 a 20-year-old inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion, who also refused to give his name. But, he said, “We locked ourselves down.”

The best roundup we’ve found of information and context on the strike appears today on Prison Law Blog. (We are taking the liberty of running the post in full, but please visit–and subscribe to–the blog, which is well worth your attention.)

The Black Agenda Report, a Georgia-based news site “from the black left,” reported on Saturday that inmates were on Day 2 of a strike (mirrored here at Open Left):

Inmate families and other sources claim that when thousands of prisoners remained in their cells Thursday, authorities responded with violence and intimidation. Tactical officers rampaged through Telfair State Prison destroying inmate personal effects and severely beating at least six prisoners. Inmates in Macon State Prison say authorities cut the prisoners’ hot water, and at Telfair the administration shut off heat Thursday when daytime temperatures were in the 30s. Prisoners responded by screening their cells with blankets, keeping prison authorities from performing an accurate count, a crucial aspect of prison operations.

Although there were some reports of a “media blackout,” the New York Times did report on the strike, here (online only) and here (online and page A13 of yesterday’s newspaper) (and picked up by Slate here), emphasizing the use of cell phones and social networking to coordinate the strike. However, most local news outlets reported, via the Georgia Department of Corrections, that the prisoners were not on strike, but rather had been placed on lockdown to pre-empt the strike. Examples of local Georgia coverage portraying the weekend’s events as a lockdown are here at the Rome News-Tribune, here from the AP, here from Atlanta’s WSB-TV, and here from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

With about 52,000 inmates, Georgia’s prison system is not among the largest in the country in absolute numbers. But relative to the state’s population, it has an outsize reach. In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole — the highest rate of correctional control in the country. (Nationwide that figure is 1 in 31.) According to the Sentencing Project, over 4% of Georgia adults and almost 10% of African-Americans cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws. The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights has been a leading advocate for prisoners in Georgia and its neighboring states.

And the full list of the prisoners’ demands, from the above-linked press release:

· 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 society.

· DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th 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 8th 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.

· VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.

· 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.

Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to Coordinate Protest
By SARAH WHEATON
December 12, 2010

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 planned to organize 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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