Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Georgia Prisons: Locked Down for Liberty

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a short piece for a book about an underground newspaper collective I used to belong to back in the early 1970's. The paper was originally called the Penal Digest International and was touted as "the voice of the prisoner." The collective was also the base for the National Prison Center, the National Prisoners' Coalition, and the Church of the New Song, all of which get mentioned here and there on the internet still, but not very correctly and mostly pretty negatively, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the Church of the New Song managed to win its suit against the prison system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyway, in the process of writing, I was caused to take a walk down memory lane and I'm having trouble finding my way back.

One reason is that, as I point out in the piece I wrote, I never really left the "prison abolition movement" even when I burned to a crisp and walked away from the PDI et al. During that time and ever since, I've written letters to the editor, newspaper columns and articles, and spoken at every opportunity on what prisons are and what they represent in a country that uses them to push a White Supremacist and reactionary political agenda as a capitalist enterprise.

I created a workshop for ex-prisoners called "How to Stay on the Street -- Without Going Back Up the Wall." I consulted, conducted trainings and did research on ex-prisoner employability. I worked with adjudicated teen-aged boys in a facility in Miami. I designed programs for poverty-stricken kids of color, many of whom were already involved in the system on the fast track for prison. I counseled women in a maximum security penitentiary in south Florida (earning myself a never-gets-to-come-back-in-here stamp of disapproval when I purchased $300 worth of new books for the prison library). And eventually, I taught college courses in juvenile delinquency and the sociology of the correctional system.

Today, as you may know, in addition to everything else, I blog regularly on criminal justice issues. And I am deeply committed to the campaign to release the remaining two members of the Angola 3, Black Panther Party members who have been in solitary confinement for thirty-nine years because of their politics (an update on them will follow later this week). And both of my children were fathered by men I met while they were in prison. So you can see that the experience of being made to know -- really know -- what's going on behind the walls affected me for all time.

When I first found this road I’ve been on these past four decades, people –- especially prisoners -– would ask me why I cared enough to do what I was doing. I got my answer when I read somewhere that the criminal code is the line of demarcation between the individual and the state. That’s why. A society that can remove all the rights from any group in that society can remove all the rights from any group in that society. The society we live in has made an art form out of assaulting the rights of people of color and most particularly, African-American men. I am only too clear that anyone can go to jail in the U.S. if the authorities want them there –- for whatever reason. So when I question my commitment -– so long-standing now -– I always think to myself, “If I was locked in a cell, what would I hope someone would do for me?”

Lately, I've had plenty to keep me focused on the topic. This fall, the ACLU brought out a report on the practice of filling prisons with people for no other reason than that they couldn't pay their fine or the cost of their probation or whatever, summarily returning us to the age of the "debtors' prisons" which are supposed to be against the law. (Ha!) About the same time, the Black Agenda Report made us all aware that Detroit is trying to pass an ordinance that would put parents in jail for not visiting their children's schools (and what would that course be called? We Got The Power 101?) Finally, Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is the talk of the town (see her more briefly on Democracy Now! or watch her talk for an hour here.)

But it's another story entirely that has me haunting the internet the last few weeks and that, of course, is about what's going on in Georgia's prisons, where thousands of prisoners have united across racial, ethnic and religious boundaries to demand their human rights. For an old prison abolition warhorse like me, this is the stuff dreams are made of. I should have been on this from the get-go, but I was still grading papers and giving final exams when the men kicked off their shutdown of somewhere between four and a dozen of Georgia's "correctional" institutions.

Day One (12/9): Using hundreds of cell phones, which the prisoners pay guards $400 a pop to smuggle in for them, Black, White, and Latino prisoners released the following statement:

"No more slavery. Injustice in one place is injustice to all. Inform your family to support our cause. Lock down for liberty!"

Blogger Bruce Dixon (Managing Editor of Black Agenda Report) posted their press release on his personal blog, Corrente. Communicating with each other and the outside world on their contraband phones, the prisoners said they would not perform chores, work for the prison industries or shop at the commissary until their demands were met. Those who know how prisons work know how carefully this was thought out. Prisoner "chores" run the joint in every way but security. Prisoner "industries" make money for the joint (when corporations pay the prison to have their company's work done or products made by slave labor) and money for the outside industry and its stockholders. Then, the prisoner commissary not only makes money for the joint -- a LOT of it -- but the prisoners' commitment not to buy the few creature comforts they have available unquestionably spoke to their willingness to struggle, suffer, and do without in order to make their point. It must have been a bad day at Black Rock when the news came down.

The prisoners' demands, communicated to prisoner activist and former Black Panther Elaine Brown, included a wage for working (Georgia works its prisoners for free); education past the GED and other than the training to become a Baptist minister currently available; adequate health care services; relief from cruel and unusual punishments for petty offenses; decent living conditions; more nutritional meals; skills training and self-improvement opportunities; more and more reasonable avenues for communication between prisoners and their families; and less use of capricious and routine parole denials. I couldn't help but think about how far organizing inside has come since the day (back in the 1970's) when prisoners who took over a prison without a plan wound up "demanding" fizzies and comic books as ways to make their lives less harsh.

Day Two (12/10): The word was out, even though the mass mainstream media was virtually silent on the strike. At least six prisoners at Telfair State Prison were brutally beaten and supposed leaders at Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith and at least four other state institutions were locked in close custody. Nevertheless, the prisoners stood firm:

"We are going to ride it till the wheels fall off. We want our human rights."
In truth, admininstrators at the Georgia Department of "Corrections" had been holding their breath all year long, knowing they were pushing the prisoners beyond rational limits, even for them. They started "triple bunking" (putting three men in a cell intended to hold one) last winter. Then, in August or September, they removed the men's right to smoke cigarettes. In the light of these two new realities alone, the Powers-That-Be probably expected prisoners and their various "cliques" to go off big time -- but on each other, as they often do out of frustration under such circumstances. But the prisoners surprised them by flipping the script and organizing themselves in their own best interests. Administrators turned off the heat and the hot water in the below freezing weather and ordered their Tactical Units (read "Storm Troopers") to go on a rampage, but the prisoners kept on keepin' on.

Day 5 (12/13): By day five, the GDC had admitted that at least four prisons were completely on strike. The Atlanta Journal had finally decided to "notice" that the largest prison strike in human history had exploded in their home state, especially since The New York Times had been forced to mention the strike the day before because prisoners on cell phones were calling their news rooms:

"We have the Crips and the Bloods; we have the Muslims; we have the head Mexicans; and we have the Aryans -- all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground."
The prisoners explained that every dorm had at least one point man with a cell phone relaying news and information from the outside and from other prisons. In response, the GDC gruffly announced an indefinite lockdown at multiple prisons under its administrative purview. Not to be outdone, however, one 20-year-old prisoner at Hays State was quoted as saying:

"We’re hearing in the news they’re putting it down as we’re starting a riot, so they locked all the prisons down. But we locked ourselves down.”
Day 8 (12/16): Continued blogging about the strike, such as by Joe Weber posting on Death + Taxes, kept spreading the word and keeping the issue in the public eye. The Centre for Research on Globalization, referring to prisons as "concentration camps for the poor and people of color," called for supporters to demand that major mainstream media conglomerate CNN, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, put the story of this "heroic act of resistance to inhumane prison conditions and racism" on the air.

Day 9 (12/17): State "corrections" officials met in downtown Atlanta with a delegation of leaders from the striking prisoners' communities. Called the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners Rights, the delegation was headed by Ed Dubose of the Georgia state conference of the NAACP, and included representatives from the US Human Rights Organization, the Nation of Islam, the Green Party of Georgia, The Ordinary Peoples Society, and attorneys from the ACLU of Georgia, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and elsewhere, along with state representative Roberta Abdul-Salaam.

Day 12 (12/20): The following Monday, according to Bruce Dixon's post on Black Agenda Report, a smaller group of the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners Rights was allowed to enter Macon State Prison, two hours south of Atlanta, where they interviewed staff and prisoners for about five hours. The group had hopes of entering at least one more prison this week. And the intention, apparently, is to keep faith with the prisoners, who I assure you are going to continue to be feeling the repercussions of what they have done for some time to come. One of the Coalition members, Rev. Kenny Glasgow, a former prisoner himself who now runs re-entry programs for other ex-prisoners, explained:

"We understand where we are and how we got here. We only got to sit down with correctional officials, we only gained access to the prisons because of the courageous stand of those behind the walls. It was their willingness to work together across different lines and to sacrifice the very limited freedom and safety they have that got us to this point. The prisoners have done all they can do now. It's up to us to build a movement out here that can make the changes which have to be made."

More than five years ago, Dixon outlined exactly how to go about doing that in his post on ”How to Make Mass Incarceration a Political Issue”. So we have no excuses. We have the prisoners showing us how to stand up against all odds. We have knowledgeable leaders calling for our involvement and participation. And we have some possible steps forward.

We can start by calling administrators:

Macon State Prison is at 478-472-3900
Hays State Prison is at 706-857-0400
Telfair State prison is at 229-868-7721
Baldwin State Prison is at 478-445-5218
Valdosta State Prison is 229-333-7900
Smith State Prison is at 912-654-5000

We can contact the Georgia Department of Corrections through their website or by phone at 478-992-5246. We can join and "like" the Concerned Coalition's Facebook site. We can sign the petition at or read what some of the striking prisoners said to one of the bloggers about what outside support has meant to them. We can contact and support the organizations represented in the Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners Rights. Or we can get creative and think up something else that we could do. In other words, we could ask ourselves: if I was locked up in Georgia and I had stood up for the human rights of all those similarly situated, what would I hope someone would do for me?

Representitives of the Detroit contingent of the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners Rights call for justice for Georgia prisoners outside Detroit’s Mound Road prison Dec. 14, 2010 (Photo by Diane Bukowski)


macon church said...

interesting read. Not sure which side to fall on

Changeseeker said...

I'm glad you found it interesting, Macon. It's a fairly simple scenario actually. When a White guy sticks up a gas station, we tend to send him to drug treatment the first several times. When a Black guy sticks up a gas station, he's lucky not to get killed "trying to get away," "only" going to prison for ten years (or more). When a prison official sticks up thousands of prisoners who cannot defend themselves or their families from being ripped off daily, some of them for life, we call it "good business." It's a matter of principle and ethics, but it's also a matter of constitutionality. Does that help?

Will Capers said...

I support their cause.

Changeseeker, you are doing a lot, and I applaud you for that. I not only support your blogpage, but your activism as well.

Changeseeker said...

Thank you, Will. Coming from you, that's high praise. If we each do what we can do, we will not only survive, but win the battle to establish justice for all people. That's what I live for.