The significant prison strike in Georgia
Dec 23, 2010
What conclusions or lessons can be drawn from the historic Georgia
prisoners’ strike that lasted close to a week and involved as many as 10
institutions across the state?
One of the most remarkable elements of the job action by prisoners who
refused to continue working for free was the broad unity among Black, Latino,
white, Muslim, Christian, Rastafarian and other groups.
The active promotion of divisions among inmates through favored treatment,
rumor-mongering and directed violence to one group or another is standard
operating procedure by prison authorities. Although most people readily
understand that the vast majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. are poor
and quite often are people of color, the recognition that prisoners are workers
too is less apparent to many of the public.
Yet the Georgia prisoners’ first demand was that they be paid for
their labor; that they were not slaves or animals to be worked without
remuneration or human dignity. This is a profound message sent by the most
exploited members of the working class, denied by law from receiving any wages
for their labor.
The sheer audacity of using contraband cell phones to plan, organize and
mobilize a synchronized “lock down for liberty” in statewide
facilities speaks to the ingenuity and skills of these men. Although most of
these phones are supplied by guards at a high price to inmates, it is a felony
for a prisoner to have an unauthorized phone in Georgia. During the week-long
strike, as prisoners remained in their cells, refusing to come out, it was
through these phones that they were able to communicate with each other, media
outlets and supporters on the outside.
Although the corporate media, particularly the major TV news stations,
largely ignored the strike, alternate media such as Democracy Now and
Hard Knock Radio, as well as Black Agenda Report, provided extensive
coverage day by day.
Former chair of the Black Panther Party and long-time prisoner rights’
advocate Elaine Brown, who acted as a voice for the strikers, was interviewed
extensively. The Internet petition initiated by the International Action Center
generated tens of thousands of emails supporting the strikers’ demands
and calling for no reprisals.
Solidarity demonstrations took place in several cities including Detroit;
Oakland, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; Denver; Raleigh, N.C.; and New York City.
Messages of support came from people around the globe, including prisoners in
other countries. It is fair to say that the Georgia prisoners’ strike
brought a measure of worldwide solidarity and attention to the deplorable
conditions commonplace in U.S. prisons, in a way not seen since the upstate New
York Attica rebellion in 1971, almost 30 years ago.
In fact, the manifesto released by the Attica prisoners, declaring they were
“men not animals,” and detailing demands for access to health care
and educational opportunities, the end to arbitrary punishment and brutal
guards, decent living conditions and the right to unionize are echoed in
similar demands made by the Georgia strikers.
In truth there have been many struggles by prisoners in the intervening
years that exposed the inhuman policies and practices deemed normal or
acceptable for those convicted of a “crime.” Quite often, these
actions were labeled “riots,” involving the spontaneous seizure of
a cellblock or taking of hostages following some instance of guard brutality.
Most often, the state employed immediate, massive violence to regain control of
the prison, resulting in injury, death or increased sentences for those
involved. Little to no publicity was given to the prisoners’
Prisoners need ongoing solidarity
In contrast, the Georgia prisoners’ strike released a list of nine
demands just before the action took place on Dec. 9. The prisoners had a
unified plan of action agreed to by the leadership within prison society. They
had stockpiled foodstuffs, knowing there would be no meals. They deliberately
chose a time later in the year when the temperatures would not be sweltering in
their closed-in and overcrowded cells.
Unfortunately, the strike occurred during a most unseasonable cold snap that
caused temperatures to plummet below freezing in parts of Georgia. But the
determined strikers endured. They had a diffused and publicly unidentified
leadership which prevented immediate removal of their spokespeople. In other
words, this was a most carefully conceived and executed plan to deliver a list
of concrete demands drawn from their experience as workers and their insistence
on human dignity.
Although the strike was declared over and the Department of Corrections
preemptive lockdown of four prisons ended on Dec. 16, reports continue to come
out that some prisoners are still refusing to go to their work assignments.
There are persistent accounts that a number of inmates have been sent to the
“hole” or transferred to unknown locations. One possible transfer
site mentioned in continuing phone calls from inside the walls is Reidsville,
the state’s maximum security prison where Georgia’s death row is
located. Physical retaliation against some prisoners has been claimed.
On Dec. 17 representatives of the Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners
Rights met with the Department of Corrections to press for action on the
strikers’ demands. The coalition, made up of the NAACP and the Nation of
Islam, among other community organizations, reported no positive results from
the meeting but pledged to continue their support for the strike’s
The need for continued solidarity action is critical. These striking workers
did no harm to anyone. They employed a time-honored tactic of workers
everywhere — withholding their labor to press their demands. For a week,
they prepared no meals, scrubbed no floors, made no license plates or
furniture. The truth is whether in a prison, on a factory assembly line, at a
computer or behind a store counter, nothing is produced, transported,
distributed or serviced without the labor of a worker.
The full impact of the Georgia prisoners’ strike is yet to be seen.
Will others adopt similar strategies and tactics? In many states, huge
corporations like BP, TWA, Compaq, JCPenny, Best Western Hotels, Honda,
Chevron, IBM, Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret and Boeing, to name a few,
employ thousands of prisoners, especially in call-in centers, paying on average
40 cents an hour.
This growing phenomenon of a captive workforce is a dream come true for many
a capitalist. But as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described in “The
Communist Manifesto” and the Georgia prisoners’ strike showed,
class conscious and organized workers — be they inside or outside the
prison walls — are the “specter haunting” this exploitive,
profits-before-people system of capitalism.
To sign the online petition and contact prison authorities, go to