Georgia: Prisoners’ General Strike

On Thursday, December 9, inmates at between six and ten Georgia state prisons began a coordinated prisoners’ general strike. The strike, centered around a clear set of demands, was faced with a near-total blackout in the major capitalist media. The prisoners’ eight demands were publicized in two press releases once the action had begun. They read:

* 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.

December 8 and 9

Officials in the prison system caught wind of the planned strike on December 8, the day before the action was to take place, and immediately began  lockdown procedures. This process included putting certain prisoners, who were considered organizers of the strike, in the “hole.” Among these suspected leaders at Macon State was the adopted son of Elaine Brown, long time chair of the Black Panther Party and now a prisoners’ rights activist.

All attempts by the prison apparatus to crush the strike before it began failed, however. Despite violence, beatings, solitary confinement, destruction of personal property and other means of intimidation, the prisoners remained united. By the morning of December 9, near total participation in the strike action was reached. Despite the removal of some leaders from the general population, the chiefs of the various “sets” or factions in the prisons remained united. This is particularly astounding in US prisons, where the population is strongly divided along racial and ethnic lines.

With Latinos, Blacks and white prisoners participating, the strike is a clear demonstration of how struggle clarifies the issue of race vs. class. Much like the many millions of striking workers throughout US history, the prisoners have learned through struggle that racism is used by the bosses (or, in this case, prison officials) to divide the workers as a whole.

Some readers may ask how prisoners can go on strike. How can someone with no control over his or her own daily life possibly start making the rules and leveling demands? Sure, everyone has heard of prisoners going on hunger strikes, and many have heard of how the prisoners rose up and took control of Attica Correctional Facility in New York, only to be put down in blood by police sent in by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. But the prisoners in Georgia have shown a new way for prisoners to fight back. On December 9, they simply refused to leave their cells to report for their duties.

Immediately, the repression began. The Georgia Department of Corrections flexed its muscle by shutting off heat to the prisons where the strike was taking place. This measure was particularly dangerous to the lives of the strikers since temperatures were at abnormally low levels for Georgia and sub-freezing on the nights of December 9th and 10th. In fact, these tactics led to even more problems for the prison apparatus because the strikers lined their cells with blankets to insulate them, thus depriving the security officers the ability to take an accurate inmate count the following morning.

How the Strike Was Organized

The ingenious methods of the strikers to organize the action cannot be admired enough. By means of contraband cell phones, the prisoners used their various contacts in individual prisons to spread the strike throughout the state.

It is particularly sickening that many low-level prison bureaucrats have used the sale of contraband phones as a means of making profit. However, that is what happens when public sector wages and benefits are slashed with the butcher’s knife. In fact, some phones which normally cost fifty dollars in retail stores cost the prisoners as much as $500 at the hands of the prison guards.

Despite the exorbitant prices, the prisoners pooled their resources, refrained from purchasing food in the privately-licensed commissaries and forgoed the few “real-world” items available through mail-order and the Internet. In this way, with multiple cell phones floating around the various prisons, near total participation was achieved by the morning of the 9th in the general population.

More Brutal Repression, the Media Blackout and the Lessons

Of course, the very success of the strike is precisely the reason so few in the US have heard about it. The fact that prisoners can pull off a successful general strike that genuinely wounded the prison industry of an entire state would send a shock wave through the US working class had the capitalist-owned media given it its due and proper reporting. Instead, a handful of media outlets on the left were the first to break the story and the only sources to consistently follow it.

Most major media outlets sacrificed a paragraph or two to the strike, often times less. And they have been nearly silent in the aftermath of beatings, torture and mass punishments of solitary confinement. One young prisoner was beaten so mercilessly that the prison officials had to spirit him away under cover of night to a hospital. His family heard the news second hand nearly three weeks later. And this is just one case which has trickled into public knowledge.

As the old Russian proverb says, “life teaches.” And so it has. This strike has taught us that when workers stand together in their multitudes, even the most repressive elements of the state can be put in a state of panic and paralysis. It showed once again that the attacks of the bosses and the state can be turned to the advantage of the struggle, and that the irrepressible will of the exploited is the most formidable force known in human society.  Above all, it showed us the power of unity and solidarity. The normally thorny questions of neighborhood, city, ethnicity and race were brushed aside in the course of the struggle by the strikers in Georgia’s prisons. The same will and has been true in all the major struggles of the working class throughout the world.

The prisoners’ strike is over, but theirs was an opening shot in a  much larger and much longer battle that will in time overturn the capitalist system, which criminalizes the working class and weakens it by injecting the poison of race hatred. Only the struggle for and victory of socialism will put these problems where they so deservedly belong: the scrap heap of history.

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