THOUSANDS OF prisoners in at least four penitentiaries across the state of Georgia continued a non-violent strike for the fifth consecutive day yesterday in a showdown between the Department of Corrections and inmates over forced labour and poor living conditions.
The strike is unprecedented in at least two ways: it was organised by mobile phones that were smuggled into the prisons, and it has united prisoners across ethnic and religious lines, in an environment where racially-based gangs often fight each other.
“They have set aside their differences,” said Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader and adviser to the prisoners, whose 27- year-old adopted son is incarcerated at Macon State prison.
“You have blacks, Mexicans, whites, Muslims, Christians, Rastafarians, you name it. They are all united and they are conscious that they are united around their common interests.”
The department of corrections yesterday issued a two-paragraph statement saying that “four facilities still remain in a lockdown status and there have been no major incidents or issues reported”.
A spokeswoman reached by telephone refused to comment on reports that at least six prisoners were beaten at Augusta State Prison, that several suffered broken ribs and that one was beaten “beyond recognition”.
Ms Brown spoke to The Irish Times by telephone from Oakland, California. She fielded incoming calls and text messages from prisoners as we talked.
“Mostly what they’re saying is: ‘We’re still here. What’s going on out there?’” she said. “They’re all right with themselves. They stay in the cells, read, call me, hide their phones and tell the guards they’re not coming out. They’re pretty much on a pattern now.”
The strike has diminished since it started on December 9th. “They’re tired, dirty, in a trash-filled environment,” Ms Brown said. “The situation is certainly going to deteriorate. The greatest fear we have is that the guards will trigger an escalation to a violent confrontation . . . They know they can put it down, because they can start killing people.”
Since the strike started, guards have cut heat and hot water. “They sent swat teams into cells to destroy people’s property, pushed people around, put dogs on people,” Ms Brown said.
“They have even gone so far as to try to make people urinate in cups so they can allegedly check for drugs. They’ve done it out in the cold. The men have to stand outside and are being told to drop their pants so the guards can manhandle them and force them to urinate.”
The strike is total in affected prisons, Ms Brown said. “If you’re at Macon or Smith or Hayes, you’re participating in the strike. It’s not five people. This isn’t rabble-rousing. It’s a universal, unified effort on the part of men who have been treated like slaves, whether they are black, white or Latino.”
Prisoners began planning the strike at the end of the summer, when prison authorities cut the cigarette supply. For the past three months, they have organised by word of mouth and mobile phone. One prisoner told the New York Times that 10 per cent of inmates had contraband mobile phones.
The prisoners’ main demand is an end to forced labour without pay, which they say is a violation of the 13th amendment of the constitution banning slavery and involuntary servitude. Georgia state law prohibits paying them. Inmates are required to do prison chores, cook and serve meals and are sent out to maintain other government buildings. On release, they are given $25 and a bus ticket.
With 60,000 prisoners and 150,000 people on probation, Georgia has the highest prisoner-to-resident ratio in the US. African-Americans comprise 63 per cent of the prison population but only 30 per cent of state residents. The striking prisoners are also demanding educational opportunities beyond the General Equivalency Diploma certificate.
They object to a monopoly on money transfers from their families to them, held by the private company J-Pay, which takes a 10 per cent commission. Global Tel-Link, another private company, charges $55 a month for once weekly 15-minute phone conversations between prisoners and families.
Prisoners say they are over-charged for medical care, and want better food, especially fruit and vegetables. Georgia spends $49 a day per prisoner, compared to a national average of $79.