Georgia Prisoners End Protest, But Continue Demands

Inmates used cell phones, and good old fashioned organizing to capture the nation's attention.

By Julianne Hing Dec 15, 2010

6:30pm ET UPDATE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this afternoon that the lock down at four Georgia state prisons is being lifted after prisoners called off their strike Wednesday. 

From the AJC:

"We’ve ended the protest," said Mike, a convicted armed robber who was one of the inmates who planned and coordinated the work stoppage. "We needed to come off lock down so we can go to the law library and start … the paperwork for a [prison conditions] lawsuit.

"We’re just giving them time to … meet our requests without having to worry about us on lock down."

They’ve said they will return to their work assignments for now. Who put who on lock down first is still a matter of contention. Inmates insist that they initiated a self-imposed lock down when they refused to leave their cells or report for work. The AJC reported that if prison officials don’t meet inmates’ demands, prisoners plan to escalate their protests with violence the next time around.


Nearly a week after going on strike and refusing to leave their prisons cells to work, thousands of Georgia prisoners in at least four Georgia state prisons remain in lockdown. On Monday, Georgia officials confirmed that Hays State Prison, Macon State Prison, Telfair State Prison and Smith State Prison were still locked down, though there have been reports of similar strikes at Georgia’s 26 other state prisons. It’s been called the largest prison strike in U.S. history.

Prisoners are demanding better nutrition, access to educational resources and fair compensation for their labor, the New York Times reported this weekend. Georgia prisoners are not paid at all for their labor. They say that they also face overcrowding and intolerable living conditions, and that in exchange for their strike prisoners have been beaten and punished. Prison officials have reportedly withheld heat and hot water for days since the strike started on Dec. 9. Prisoners say they will refuse to shop in the prison store and leave their cells to work until they see some change.

Much has been made of the contraband cell phones prisoners reportedly used to organize their strike. But Elaine Brown, a prisoners’ rights advocate and former chair of the Black Panther Party, who’s become their spokesperson spoke with Democracy Now! on Tuesday and said cell phone smuggling was abetted by prison guards:

[P]eople imagine that there’s all this smuggling going on–and there is, but it’s on the part of–in the main, on the part of guards that are inside these facilities. The strike, which Brown said involved as many as ten prisons, was more notable because prisoners organized a nonviolent strike and put up a united front that crossed racial lines. Brown said: And each group–you know, you have blacks in various subsets, and you have Muslims, you have Mexicans and other Latinos, Hispanics, you have Whites, you have Rastafarians, you have Christians–all of them, for reasons that I cannot explain how they suddenly understood how to be unified, decided, "Yeah, we’re not working, and we’re down with this, and we’re not going to get up, and we’re going to stay united."

Sara Mayeux over at Prison Law Blog points out that at 52,000, Georgia’s prison population isn’t that large among U.S. states, until it’s examined in proportion to the rest of the state.

But relative to the state’s population, it has an outsize reach. In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole — the highest rate of correctional control in the country. (Nationwide that figure is 1 in 31.) According to the Sentencing Project, over 4% of Georgia adults and almost 10% of African-Americans cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws.

Johnny Grant, a Georgia state senator, is unlikely to acquiesce to prisoners’ demands, reports the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

"If they want to get paid, they shouldn’t commit crimes," said state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, chairman of the Senate Institutions and Property Committee, which oversees prisons.

Besides, he said, "If we started paying inmates, we’d also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for."