“On Monday morning, when the doors open, close them. Do not go to work. They cannot do anything to us that they haven’t already done.” This was the message that inmates got on the fifth day of a strike that became the largest prison strike in U.S. history.
When it began on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010, strike leaders planned a one-day peaceful, self-imposed lockdown in several Georgia state prisons. Their headline demand was an end to slave labor in the state, which by its own “law” compels state prisoners to work without pay. Fifty-four thousand inmates, the largest single workforce in the state, work for Prison Industries, a subsidiary of the Department of Correction — and get paid nothing.
The inmates’ intent was to mount a multiracial protest against a southern prison system infamous for violating human rights and practiced at pitting one group against another. To educate the public on the intolerable conditions of life for incarcerated people. To demand recognition by prison authorities that the U.S. is supposed to be a democracy, which minimally means the abolition of slavery, the right of everyone to vote — including ex-cons, and a voice in improving a rigged justice system.
Their work stoppage was a conscious labor rights offensive that demonstrates growing class-consciousness among the millions of people behind bars in this country.
Sit-down strike, not riot. All of the men were outraged at their slave conditions. They could have rioted. Instead, they organized a sit-down strike and prepared a list of demands. They used contraband cell phones purchased from guards to communicate between prisons. And because of certain retaliation, the identity of strike leaders remains a mystery.
The prisoners didn’t get violent. The guards did. They pepper sprayed, handcuffed and beat inmates with hammers, threw many into solitary confinement, turned off heat and light utilities, secretly transferred strike activists to other prisons, offered gang members money to attack other prisoners, and more.
“They want to break up the unity we have here,” said one inmate. “ 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. We all want to be paid for our work, and we all want education in here. There’s people in here who can’t even read.” Black men are 61 percent of the state prison population, whites 36 percent.
What do they want? The public to understand that prisoners are a hidden labor force not counted in the employment statistics. They are workers, not animals and want to be treated fairly as working-class citizens. As a reporter with Black Agenda Report put it, “With one in twelve Georgia adults in jail or prison, on parole or probation, … prisoners are us.”
Workers halted the strike after the sixth day to counteract the brutal crackdowns on them and, as one said, “So we can go to the law library and start … the paperwork for a lawsuit.”
Although the mainstream press largely ignored this historic work stoppage, word got out through the independent press, community activists, prisoners and their families — all armed with cell phones.
The Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights formed, and was swamped with messages of solidarity. Meetings and marches took place in Oakland, Detroit, New York and Raleigh. Because of public pressure, seven prison guards were arrested on Feb. 21 for assaulting one of the many inmates beaten.
Similar conditions exist nationwide. Two and a half million adults are not allowed to vote because they are in prison. Five times that number — on parole, community supervision or probation — can’t vote and are blocked from employment and education opportunities, healthcare service, special housing, etc.
Basic demands. The Georgia strikers presented the following nine demands, which eloquently testify to the conditions of U.S. imprisonment and what’s needed to help inmates make it once released. The demands form the basis of ongoing negotiations between Georgia officials and the strikers.
A living wage for work: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the Department of Corrections (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 Eighth 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 Eighth 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.
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Mark Cook is a former Black Panther who spent 27 years behind bars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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