The prison system began lifting lock downs at four institutions and returning the facilities to normal operations Wednesday and inmate said they were ending their protest for now and reporting to work assignments.
One of the organizers of the protest said prisoners are still going to pursue their concerns. If the Department of Corrections ignores their requests, the next protest will be violent, he said.
Prison officials did not say what led to the decision to end the lock downs that had been in place since last Thursday. But an inmate at Smith State Prison in Glenville said in a telephone interview prisoners had agreed to end their “non-violent” protest to allow administrators time to focus on their concerns rather than operating the institutions without inmate labor.
“We’ve ended the protest,” said Mike, a convicted armed robber who was one of the inmates who planned and coordinated the work stoppage. “We needed to come off lock down so we can go to the law library and start ... the paperwork for a [prison conditions] lawsuit.
“We’re just giving them time to … meet our requests without having to worry about us on lock down,” Mike told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday.
Mike is one of the inmates who organized the protest at Smith prison who has talked to the AJC about it. He did not want his last name published for fear of retaliation from prison officials, but agreed to allow the AJC to verify his prisoner identification number, which the paper then cross-checked with the Department of Corrections website.
Inmates began planning the protest in early September when tobacco was banned throughout the prison system. The inmates said they picked Dec. 9 as the day to start because it allowed time for the word to spread throughout the system and because the temperature in the cellblocks would be cooler by then, which is important when otherwise violent men are trying to keep their tempers in check.
Over the months before the protest and in the days after it began, updates and details were spread inmate-to-inmate and prison-to-prison using cell phones, text messages and word of mouth.
Beginning last Thursday and for six days inmates at several prisons refused to leave their cells in protest of the lack of pay for the work they do maintaining and running prison operations and cleaning other government properties; state law forbids paying inmates except for one limited program. The prisoners also were protesting the quality of the food and the lack of fruits and vegetables, the quality of medical care, the availability of education and job training programs, parole decisions and overall conditions.
After learning a protest was planned, the Department of Corrections said, wardens decided to implement lock downs at Hays, Smith, Telfair and Macon State Prisons, the institutions where inmates were most active. Prisoners locked down are not allowed to leave their cells, make collect calls from the phones in each cellblock or have visitors.
Inmates insisted, however, that they locked down themselves.
Inmates called The Atlanta Journal-Constitution several times ,using contraband cell phones or “three-way” calling feature their friends or relatives had on their telephone service.
Then wardens began easing restrictions Tuesday evening.
Inmates were allowed to use the cellblock telephones, take showers and watch television. Some inmates reported to job assignments in prison kitchens and laundries Tuesday evening. More reported to their work details on Wednesday.
“We have a responsibility to ensure public safety by operating safe and secure prisons,” said Assistant Commissioner Derrick Schofield said in a statement Wednesday. “As with any facility lock down, we will take a systematic approach in ensuring a safe and secure environment is maintained for staff and offenders, before resuming normal operations at those facilities.”
The DOC statement said there have been no problems at any of the four prisons since they began easing restrictions.
Mike said some inmates talked with the warden as he walked the institution Tuesday.
“He [the warden] said they were in the process of getting to the requests,” said Mike, an inmate at Smith State Prison near Savannah. “We let them know if they didn’t meet the requests, the next time it would be pretty bad and it was not going to be inmate on inmate; it would be inmate on administration.”
The prison system, which holds almost 53,000 inmates, declined to comment on the threat.
“We did it peacefully and tried to do it the right way. But these guys are to the point that if this [the protest] don’t work, they’re going to go about it the way they know best [with violence]," Mike said. "They wanted to go about it that way the first time, but we let them know that was not the way to go."
Mike said he feared inmates' reactions if the prison administration does not respond to their requests.
“Wardens and administrators [will be] the ones they [inmates] will be trying to get a hold of if it does go violent," Mike said." They feel like if they go past the guards and to the warden they will be taken more seriously... These guys have nothing to lose. They’re going to spend their lives in prison.
“We know the tactical squad [riot team] cannot be at more than one prison Mike said. "If you have five prisons popping off, you can’t send the tactical squad to all prisons. You’ll have to send in the National Guard and by then it’ll be too late.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.