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'Lockdown for liberty!' exposes prison conditions

By Charlene Muhammad -National Correspondent- | Last updated: Dec 14, 2010 - 11:48:07 AM

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( - Fed up with bad food, unjust treatment, poor education and inadequate health care, thousands of inmates in Georgia's prison system staged “Lockdown for Liberty,” a peaceful protest on Dec. 9, according to activists.

The Black, White, and Latino inmates from Augusta, Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith, and Telfair State Prisons refused to leave their cells for work and other activities, partly because they feel the Georgia Department of Corrections treats them like slaves, according to supporters who are not jailed.

“I'm talking to these brothers every day, every other minute really, and particularly in Macon, Telfair, Hays and Smith, their decision is they're not going to stop this strike now. One brother told me, ‘We will ride until the wheels fall off,' and that's been the sentiment amongst the men when they started this,” said Elaine Brown, a spokesperson for the strike.

More specifically, the inmates are demanding: a living wage for work, opportunities for higher education, better health care without excessive fees, and an end to cruel and unusual punishment for minor infractions.

They also want more fruits and vegetables, more vocational training, an end to some restrictions on family access, and an end to excessive telephone charges and just parole decisions.

“Part of our purpose for doing this is that Georgia is the only state that does not pay it's inmates at all. Some guys in here work seven days a week and they don't get a dime,” said Dondito, one of the strikers, who requested anonymity.

He said despite reports by the Department of Corrections that no inmates have been hurt, several in Augusta have been beaten up to unrecognizable points, according to their families. “The DOC and internal affairs have been to most of the institutions today, pulling inmates out, trying to find out who are the leaders and who have the cell phones because this was organized so well and done so strategically, it snuck up on them,” he told The Final Call on Dec. 13, day five of the strike and also press time.

The inmates have garnered support from the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, the Black Agenda Report, the Green Party, elected officials, and others who make up the newly-formed Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners' Rights. On Dec. 13, the coalition, which is spearheaded by Ms. Brown, held a press conference at the Capitol. They called for a state and federal investigation into the matter, urged Governor Sonny Perdue and the Department of Corrections to stop the violent tactics being used by guards against the inmates.

“What we're saying is we're not advocating that prisoners go free or advocating making prisons a cakewalk but a person in prison even is not to be treated inhumane and under some of these conditions, these inmates are being treated like animals,” said Edward DuBose, president of the NAACP Georgia State Conference.

Mr. DuBose told The Final Call that the coalition is forming its own fact-finding mission to verify rumors of retaliation against prisoners, specifically in Macon, Hays, and Smith prisons. “This is totally peaceful, non-violent and when gangs come together to say something is wrong in the prison system, we've got to be concerned about the conditions. They are doing the best they know how to get the word out to the larger community about inhumane conditions and we are saying to the Department of Corrections and the governor that we're holding them responsible for any harm that would come to any of the prisoners as a result of them speaking out,” Mr. DuBose said.

Ms. Brown, former chairman of the Black Panther Party, said she doesn't know how long the men are going to strike but doesn't believe they are prepared to give up after just after one or two days, despite the beatings in Augusta.

“The tactical squad went in to trash their property and give them a shake down to try and break their spirits and force them into some violent confrontation. They cut off visitation for everyone, and are really reacting very violently to what is a non-violent protest,” Ms. Brown told The Final Call.

Dondito said the prisons are doing all they can to break their spirits and the strike, like cutting off the heat and hot water, taking away recreation, feeding them cold sandwiches, and refusing to wash their clothes.

He said strikers intend to stand for as long as it takes to force a change in horrible living conditions, which include being beaten when taken to or in solitary confinement and receiving bad food.

Calls for interviews to the Georgia Department of Corrections had not yet been returned at press time, but according to reports, GDOC officials indicated that four facilities remained in lockdown status. Ms. Brown feels the Georgia Department of Corrections is not responding because it has something to hide.

“Right now police have lost control of the situation and they're trying to regain control because they can't make these men leave their cells and they're doing everything now to force them out, including anything to undermine the unity they have formed,” she said.

“I think they're standing up for what they feel is right, medical, better food, all of it,” said Valerie Porter, whose husband has been incarcerated for 13 years.

For instance, she said, fees for medication are supposed to be waived for inmates in chronic care, but her husband has chronic high blood pressure and is charged for medication. He also complains that the food is unhealthy, high in starch and fats, and that makes his high blood pressure worse, she said.

That is why Ms. Porter felt compelled to assist with the strike, though inmates in the facility that houses her husband did not participate.

“They are determined and regardless of what sacrifices they have to make they're willing to do it to force some changes. True, some people deserve to be in prison, but many are innocent and in just because judges said so. Why treat me like I'm a dog because I'm in prison? I'm still human, and that's how many of them feel. It's sad and I don't wish it on nobody, not even the worst crime committers,” Ms. Porter said.

Georgia's a unique place, said Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report. He said 1 in 13 Georgians, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, is either in jail, in prison, or on bail, parole, or some form of court or correctional supervision.

“The so-called correctional apparatus in Georgia is corrupt and it doesn't do, even on its own terms, what it says it's supposed to do. It doesn't make anybody safer and doesn't correct anything,” Mr. Dixon told The Final Call.

He predicted that society would probably witness more unrest inside and outside of prisons unless things change.

“The medium term outcome is there's going to be a people's movement that's going to take people outside the walls as well as inside to abolish this awful system we call prison in North America because it doesn't serve any useful purpose,” Mr. Dixon added.

Related news:

Prison reform and appeals for change (FCN, 12-15-2010)