Friday, December 10, 2010

"Attica! Attica! Attica!"

OK, so maybe it wasn't quite Dog Day Afternoon, but apparently a brief show of solidarity among Georgia prison inmates led to a four-prison lockdown yesterday.

At least four Georgia prisons were locked down Thursday in an effort to head off an expected inmate protest demanding pay for the work they do, more education opportunities and better living conditions.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Chapman said there had been no problems at any of the state's 30 prisons and there was nothing to suggest the long-rumored protest happened.

“For us, it was a rumor,” Chapman said. “There’s nothing really going on. Inmates are working … [except at] the prisons we put on lock down. I think that [the protest] was the plan but I don’t think it’s come to fruition.”

“We have a non-negotiable mission to protect and serve the public, as well as the offenders in our custody,” said Tim Ward, director of the state Corrections department unit that operates the prisons. “The Department stands prepared to respond to any emergency within our facilities.”
Only in the upside down world of imprisonment could a refusal to work, in the name of better wages and working conditions, be viewed as an "emergency."
One of the inmates’ demands is to be paid for their work. System-wide, inmates cook and serve meals, clean and maintain the prisons and are dispatched to other government buildings to clean, repair and paint them. But Georgia law does not allow for paying state prisoners except for the 20 inmates at two prisons participating in the Prison Industry Enhancement Program; they are paid $7.25 and hour .
A bit of history: during the get tough binge in the 1990's, the standard compensation rate for Georgia prisoners of .17 cents per hour was done away with ("too much damn money"). Worse, inmates under court-order victim compensation could no longer make restitution, thus perpetually putting them in default with the court (and returning them back to prison once paroled).

But hey, from the git tuff point of view, "paying" inmates for their labor? An inmate working at .17 cents per hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, making $353 in a calendar year? In this economy?

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if anything comes of this story over the next few days and weeks. Economically, it's probably not the right time for inmates to be clamoring for a "raise" (even if it's from nothing to something), but when is it ever the "right time" for us to listen to inmates and examine institutional conditions and problems?

UPDATE: The New York Times had a more in-depth profile of the organized protest, calling it the first cellphone coordinated "grass-roots prison strike" in history.

Smuggled cellphones have been commonplace in prisons for years; Charles Manson was caught with one in a California penitentiary this month. Officials worry that inmates will use them to issue orders to accomplices on the outside or to plan escape attempts.

But the Georgia protest appears to be the first use of the technology to orchestrate a grass-roots movement behind bars.

Reached on their cellphones inside several prisons, six participants in the strike described a feat of social networking more reminiscent of Capitol Hill vote-whipping than jailhouse rebellion.

I've written about contraband cellphones over the past few years. In some states, the problem has reached such discerning proportions (the Times piece asserts "10% of all inmates have cellphones and/or text"), that many jurisdictions are weighing cellular blackout zones around prisons (see TPE, July 14, 2009).

As I noted in the 2009 post, however, jamming signals seems like overkill (not to mention dangerous; what if a real riot broke out and no one could get a signal in and around the prison to call for help?). We know that there is only one way for a cellphone to get into a prison, and that's staff. Until that's addressed (and the reasons staff would be motivated to traffic in cellphones, such as abysmal salaries for correctional officers, etc.), all the other reaction is pointless.

But my biggest problem with the Times piece is that it glosses over the inmates' real beef: uncompensated labor and working conditions. Instead this story runs the risk of devolving into a "Waaa? Them inmates got cellphones? Time to git tuff!" which I can already see coming.

And what prompted the inmates to attempt to organize a protest to begin with will go unnoticed and unaddressed.

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