by Mary Ratcliff
On Dec. 9, thousands of prisoners in Georgia – prisoners from different prisons, of different races, ages and religions – made a very brave step forward. They all sat down at once, demanding a living wage for work, education opportunities, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishment, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, access to families and just parole decisions. (The full list of demands, in the prisoners’ words, is reprinted below.) It was the biggest prison strike in U.S. history.
Eight days later, the newly formed Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners’ Rights met in Atlanta with Georgia prison officials, who, Bruce Dixon reported, told them they had “identified dozens of inmates whom they believed were leaders of the strike. They admitted confining these inmates to isolation and in some cases transferring them to other institutions.”
On Jan. 11, a Georgia prisoner sent a text message to Zak Solomon, a supporter of the Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners’ Rights, saying: “Since the beatings of inmates with hammers by corrections staff, another approach by staff is taking place. Instead of the staff themselves beating inmates, they are allowing the so called gang bangers and so called thugs to do it and then they compensate them in some fashion, as well as protect them from disciplinary action.”
Yesterday, legendary prisoner advocate Kiilu Nyasha received text messages from a Georgia prisoner whose close friend is Eugene Thomas, known to Bay View readers for a number of stories, most recently “Still no news of 37 missing Georgia prison strikers,” in which he wrote, “Reidsville, where we are, is hiding some of those brothers. This place has a history of hiding people, as they did Imam Jamil A. Al-Amin [the former H. Rap Brown] before transferring him to federal prison in Florence, Colorado.” [Update: Ajamu Baraka, a member of the Coalition, reported on Feb. 19 that the 37 prisoners have finally been located and that none of them are currently hospitalized. – ed.]
“Dear sistah,” he wrote, ”This is Mabu from the Georgia prison movement. I am a close comrade of Bro. Eugene Thomas of Georgia State Prison [also known as Reidsville], who is a known activist for prisoners’ rights and a devout Muslim. This morning I received word that he and a 56-year-old inmate by the name of Willie Mosley had been locked down and placed in the hole for alleged exposure charges.
“Anyone who has been to Reidsville knows that there are steel doors that enclose one into the showers there. Brothers usually crack the large steel doors for two reasons: one, to place your clothes and towel on the outer corner of the door so they don’t get wet. And secondly, to be able to breathe amongst so much steam and heat in the shower.
“Now a white female officer by the name of Shannon Campbell has tried to slander the brothers’ character with such filthy accusations. These brothers have never had any history of such behavior and have a number of witnesses to prove them innocent. However, most prison infractions are judged at kangaroo courts within the system not by a group of the subjects’ peers but by the staff’s coworkers. All charges will be based on officer’s ‘factual statement.’
“It is no coincidence that Bro. Eugene is being framed up at such a time. He just recently wrote an inspiring piece for the SF Bay View and submitted images of prisoners in Reidsville enjoying the paper in a study group. This is merely Georgia prison authorities’ traditional form of retaliation by criminalizing consciousness.
“Please call Georgia State Prison to see that the brothers get a fair trial and all their witnesses are allowed to file statements on their behalf and show up on the assigned court date for testimony. Otherwise they could face a long isolation sentence, store and phone restriction. Please call (912) 557-7301. In the words of Che Guavara, ‘No one is free where others are oppressed!’”
Time to express our outrage
Even more importantly, tell Warden Chatman that Eugene Thomas and all prisoners are entitled to the fundamental human right of free speech. Tell him that retaliation against a prisoner for speaking out is intolerable.
The Reidsville 3
In “Still no news of 37 missing Georgia prison strikers,” Eugene Thomas also wrote: “(W)e have a situation here where three young brothers, including my old cellmate, are being held for murder and robbery of an older white prisoner … These folks have been just holding these young brothers. They haven’t indicted neither one of them, haven’t fingerprinted either of them, aren’t giving them their proper segregation hearing — just holding them in lockup. It’s an interesting story, especially in light of everything taking place in Georgia now and with this place being a massive lockdown facility. They’ve been in the ‘hole’ now five months. I call them the ‘Reidsville 3.’”
Today, I got a call from the grandmother of one of those young men. Her grandson, Maurice C. Orr, is only 18 years old. After being placed in segregation – “the hole” – he was entitled by Georgia law to an informal hearing within 96 hours, a formal hearing with legal representation within 90 days and the opportunity to appeal the decision. Yet after six months, he has received none of that – no due process whatsoever.
Like the 37 missing men identified as leaders of the historic Dec. 9 prison strike and like Imam Jamil, the Reidsville 3 have been “hidden” by Georgia prison authorities. This is one of the practices that led to the prison strike.
“The hole” is a terrible place for anyone, especially an 18-year-old youngster like Maurice Orr, diagnosed as bipolar, who suffers from anxiety, claustrophobia and asthma – the asthma intensified by stifling heat and a lack of ventilation in the bowels of the old prison. He’s rarely allowed outdoors and is getting no medical or mental health care. Ironically, according to Wikipedia, Georgia State Prison’s Mental Health Program is a model for the federal prison system.
Maurice’s grandmother, who raised him and his brother since they were toddlers, says he is constantly being humiliated by the guards, who subject him to frequent strip searches. She believes they are trying to provoke him to violence, giving them an excuse to brutalize him.
“He’s got a good heart,” she says. “He’s a very good child. He’s smart. He can do ‘most everything. Whenever he’d get sick, I’d get sick. That’s how close we are.”
What we can and must do
Prison conditions are abominable all over the country, judging from the fistful of letters the Bay View receives every day from prisoners in every state. To a great extent, the current scourge of mass incarceration – the U.S., with 4.5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, is the world’s first prison state – is retaliation for the civil rights and Black power movements.
Too long have we tolerated this backsliding from the great advances of the ‘60s. When we are presented with a clear case of retaliation, we must protest.Zak Solomon’s advice: “After discussion with members and affiliates of the Concerned Coalition, it seems that the best response we can take at the moment is to call Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, at (404) 656-1776.
“Deal is an anti-immigrant former prosecutor and has little concern for the prisoners’ rights or their safety. Short of going out to Georgia, shutting down his phone lines appears to be the most effective way to let him know the world is watching.”
The governor is responsible for the wellbeing of all Georgia residents, including those who reside in its prisons, whether he likes them or not. We who do care about our brothers and sisters locked up in Georgia dungeons must convince him to stop hiding and brutalizing prisoners and instead to sit down with them to negotiate their righteous demands.
The prisoners accused of organizing the Dec. 9 prison strike “got shipped out of their home institutions and were dispersed across the state,” Ajamu Baraka, director of the U.S. Human Rights Network and a member of the Concerned Coalition to Protect Prisoners’ Rights, told the Final Call. Gov. Deal must be made to account for the whereabouts and the condition of each of them.
“Mr. Baraka said he feels one reason prison authorities moved to shut down the strike quickly was because it could serve as a possible model for prisoners across the country,” the Final Call reported. “But the outcome of the action in Georgia will determine whether there will be more and similar uprisings across the U.S., he predicted.”
Call Warden Chatman and Gov. Deal
Readers are urged to call
• Warden Bruce Chatman of Georgia State Prison at (912) 557-7301 concerning
o The apparently retaliatory segregation (transfer to “the hole”) of Eugene Thomas and Willie Mosley and
o The segregation and denial of due process to 18-year-old Maurice Orr and the others accused with him.
• Gov. Nathan Deal at (404) 656-1776 concerning
o The Dec. 9 prison strike demands and
o Hiding and retaliating against those accused of involvement in the Dec. 9 prison strike.
Readers are also encouraged to write words of encouragement to
• Eugene Thomas, 671488, Georgia State Prison, 2164 Georgia Highway 147, Reidsville, GA 30499, and
• Maurice Orr, 11199555, Georgia State Prison, 2164 Georgia Highway 147, Reidsville, GA 30499
The Dec. 9 prison strikers’ demands
• A living wage for work: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC [Georgia Department of Corrections] 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 Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, 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 punishment: In further violation of the Eighth Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
• Decent living conditions: Georgia prisoners are confined in overcrowded, 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.
Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 671-0789. Other writings by Eugene Thomas published by the Bay View are “Georgia prisoners: Standing up by sitting down” and “Rallying, rioting, rebelling: Revolution.”
Block Report Radio on the Georgia Prison Strike
Minister of Information JR interviews long time Georgia prisoner Eugene Thomas about prison conditions that led up to the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history, begun Dec. 9, 2010.