While the wardens at the prisons are not speaking to the public, the public is certainly speaking to the system. Across the nation, supporters of the movement are making calls to various officials to request that they help with the problem (you can see who to call by clicking here). The prisons at which the protests are taking place are: Macon, Hays, Telfair, Baldwin, Valdosta and Smith State prisons.
Thousands of inmates stayed in their cells Thursday, leading to strong and swift retaliation by the prison guards. According to those familiar with recent events, inmates have been beaten and had their personal items destroyed. Inmates also say that the authorities have cut off their hot water and shut off the heat when outside temperatures were in their 30s.
Black Agenda Report quotes one of the inmates as saying, "We are going to ride it till the wheels fall off. We want our human rights."
Demands by prison inmates include, among other things, decent living conditions, educational opportunities, just parole decisions, the end of cruel and unusual punishment and better access to their families. Currently, inmates' families cannot send money orders and are instead expected to send funds through a company that takes a large percentage of the money sent. Also, the companies that provide short, 15-minute phone calls for inmates charge massive amounts of money to families, many of whom are in poverty due to missing a primary bread-winner in the home.
Most prisons in Georgia don't allow for nearly any educational opportunities beyond the GED. This is inconsistent with the notion of preparing inmates for re-entry into society upon their release. If someone is both marginalized by the criminal justice system and uneducated, their likelihood of going back to prison is very high.
I remind the reader that the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery, says, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The translation is that the prison system became the escape clause that continues to open the door for the perpetual subjugation and enslavement of African Americans (in addition to poor whites, but in far lower percentages). When one considers the fact that black Americans are disproportionately represented in a prison system that incarcerates more human beings than any country on earth, you can see that prisons are nothing more than modern day slavery. There should be an investigation into the conditions of these facilities, and we must release the notion that it's OK to do whatever we want to another human being, as long as they've been labeled to be a criminal.
Given that black people are terribly affected by this system, we must go out of our way to challenge it. Most of us have a brother, cousin, or parent who has either gone to prison or somehow been involved in the criminal justice system. My biological father went to prison and my primary male role model also started a downward spiral in life after having his first exposure to prisons at an early age. I could tell you more, but it would just be too painful. I gave a speech in Kentucky and heard the testimony of a young girl who said that the same judge who sentenced her brother to 10 years in prison had also sentenced her father many years earlier.
We must change the way we view prison and incarcerated Americans. A nation should balance its need to control crime with the desire to keep our society safe and productive. When inmates go into prison, they must be given every opportunity to obtain an education, as well as engage in a process of positive rehabilitation that will make the person an asset to the world once they return home. Additionally, we should all stop making jokes about things like prison rape and accepting it as a default way of life. The truth is that prison rape is a factor in the spread of HIV in the black community, which is killing thousands of African Americans every year.
It's time to change some of these policies, so Eric Holder and Barack Obama should be respectfully asked to help manage this issue. We should also do them a favor by mobilizing one another and addressing it ourselves. There is simply too much at stake for us to let this issue go. Everyone deserves human rights.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.