Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Why prisoners going on strike in Georgia matters

In Georgia, today, a truly historic event has taken place. In protest over violations of basic, universal human rights, prisoners across the state - and across factional and gang lines - have staged the biggest prison strike in the state's history.

According to the New York Times;
Inmates have refused to leave their cells or perform their jobs, in a demonstration that seems to transcend racial and gang factions that do not often cooperate. 

“Their general rage found a home among them — common ground — and they set aside their differences to make an incredible statement,” said Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader who has taken up the inmates’ cause. She said that different factions’ leaders recruited members to participate, but the movement lacks a definitive torchbearer. 

Ms. Brown said thousands of inmates were participating in the strike. 

The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment Saturday night. 

“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. 

Several inmates, who used cellphones to call The Times from their cells, said they found out about the protest from text messages and did not know whether specific individuals were behind it. 

“This is a pretty much organic effort on their part,” said Ms. Brown, a longtime prisoner advocate, who distilled the inmates’ complaints into a list of demands. “They did it, and then they reached out to me.” Ms. Brown, the founder of the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform in Locust Grove, Ga., said she has spoken to more than 200 prisoners over the past two days. 
That an event of this scale was organised largely through a contraband item is in itself an achievement. More remarkable, however, is the consciousness behind it. As one inmate told the paper, "We committed the crime, we’re here for a reason, but at the same time we’re men. We can’t be treated like animals."

A press release from Brown details the prisoners' demands;
  • 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.
Of course, whilst being remarkable, this protest is limited in that it demands a "fairer" system without questioning the premise that the system is legitimate. However, whilst there are solid arguments for the abolition of the prison system, this doesn't mean that while it does those caught within it shouldn't fight to improve their lot. And such a landmark action as this can be built upon.

Moreover, it is likely that the rights being demanded are not just being denied out of negligence or malice;
Hungry humans tend to be agitated, frustrated, and on edge. It has long been noted that if you keep people full they are less likely to cause problems. But if they don't cause problems then they might be released. If they are released, the prisons don't receive funding to house them. And, no, they don't use all the money allotted to care for each prisoner on the prisoner. The paperwork may show that but the reality is very different. Prison is big business and for profit.
Last month, I reposted a piece by Tiresias Speaks making the same point with regards to the private prison industry in Arizona.

A society built upon the class divide between the rulers and the ruled breeds crime. By perpetuating poverty, misery, and injustice, it cannot do everything but. Prison - and the police force that puts people there - exists to contain all manifestations of the discontent that results, positive and negative, without addressing their root causes. The prison system is essential to maintaining the social order of capitalism.

In challenging that, improving conditions in the here and now and building towards more radical change in the future go hand in hand. I offer solidarity to all those participating in the prison strike. But I also hope that this marks the beginning, rather than the end, of their struggle.