Inmates use technology to organize state prison protest

At least four Georgia prisons were locked down Monday for the fifth-straight day as inmates continue a work-stoppage in protest of conditions.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Chapman said there had been no “major incidents or issues” reported at any of the four prisons that continue to be locked down, nor at any of the state's other 26 facilities.

Inmate advocates and relatives say, however, that heat and hot water have been turned off at some prisons and that there have been some physical confrontations between prisoners and guards.

Corrections officials said the prisons on lockdown are Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena and Smith State Prison in Glennville.

However, advocates said inmates, at times, have shut down all activity at Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons. There are 30 prisons in the state system, housing almost 53,000 men and women.

The protest, which started last Thursday, was organized by inmates using contraband cell phones purchased from guards, according to Elaine Brown, a prisoner advocate who has been in contact with the inmates.

According to Brown, the inmates are protesting the lack of fruits and vegetables in their meals, no pay for their work, poor living conditions and parole decisions.

The protest, as well as the role cell phones and text messaging have had in its organization, have drawn the attention of national and international media outlets. The New York Times has written about the protest as has the Irish Times, based in Dublin, Ireland.

While the use of the technology to organize inmates is rare, it is not uncommon for cell phones to be smuggled into prisons.

It is a felony in Georgia for an inmate to have a cell phone, as officials fear inmates could use them to plan escapes, organize drug deals, or harass victims or trial witnesses.

Smuggled cell phones have become a valuable prison commodity, much like cigarettes and drugs. Rick Jacobs, now head of prisons in North Georgia, said in a 2008 interview with the AJC that inmates can trade cell phones to “minutes for honey buns, minutes for protection, minutes for favors. Cell phones are absolutely the fastest-growing form of contraband we are trying to manage in the Georgia prison system. ... It's a nationwide issue."

Brown, a former Black Panther whose son is in Macon State Prison in central Georgia, said unlikely unions of black, white, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim inmates and prisoners from otherwise opposing gangs had been formed after months of organizing via text messaging and word of mouth.

Several inmates told the New York Times via cell phones that the protest was organized to call attention to declining conditions. They also want to be paid for work they do at the institutions and for local governments (such as road details), but state law prohibits paying prisoners except in a few specific circumstances.  They want better and healthier food, improved medical care and more access to educational programs.

“They took the cigarettes away in August or September, and a bunch of us just got to talking, and that was a big factor,” an inmate at the Smith State Prison in South Georgia, told the Times.

Text messages were sent to any inmates that have “some sort of dictatorship or leadership amongst the crowds,” the inmate told the Times. “We have to come together and set aside all differences, whites, blacks, those of us that are affiliated in gangs.”

During the lockdown, inmates are confined to their cells and there is no visitation, telephone calls or commissary visits.

“The Department’s mission of maintaining safe and secure facilities is non-negotiable and will not be jeopardized,” corrections commissioner Brian Owens said in a written statement Monday afternoon. “The Department will ensure appropriate safety measures are in place before the lockdown is lifted."

Brown, part of the newly formed Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights, said inmates at Augusta State Prison were “brutally ripped from their cells … and beaten, resulting in broken ribs, one man beaten beyond recognition.”

She said officers assigned to the riot squad at Telfair State Prison had “roughed up prisoners and destroyed all their property. At Macon and Hays State Prisons, tactical squads have menaced the men for days, removing some to the ‘hole,’ the wardens ordering heat and hot water turned off. Tear gas has been used to force men out of their cells at various prisons, while guards patrol grounds with assault rifles.”

Chapman, the DOC spokeswoman, said there had been no such confrontations.

“We are continuing to assess the status at each facility relating to our mission of operating safe and secure prisons,” Chapman said in an email. “The lock down will continue until an internal investigation and security assessment are completed.”

Corrections said the facilities on lockdown are Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena and Smith State Prison in Glennville.