By Kung Li

Georgia prisoners came out of their cells today, ending the lockdown phase of the largest prison work strike in U.S. history. The coordinated, nonviolent action drew support from around the country.

Months in the planning, the work strike this past week surprised prison officials.    

Officials at the Department of Corrections have been anxious about deteriorating conditions in Georgia's prisons since early 2010, when wardens were ordered to start triple bunking prisoners in response to budget cuts. Squeezing three prisoners into cells intended for one, prison officials were on the lookout for prisoners to riot, or prisoners' rights lawyers to litigate, or both.  

Instead, prisoners used text messages to organize an unprecedented work strike by thousands of prisoners across 10 prisons. Demanding a living wage for work, the prisoners fault the GDC for having prisoners work for free "in violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude." 

Poor conditions and substandard medical care are also on the prisoners' list of demands. The prisoners' primary interest, however, seems to be about being recognized as workers, and entitled to fair pay.

Strike leaders chose a mid-December start date in the hopes that cooler temperatures would help keep tempers in check and the action nonviolent.

The morning of Dec. 9, prisoners assigned to the earliest shift in the kitchen refused to leave their cells. For the rest of the day and through the next week, all prisoners in four prisons remained in their cells rather than report to work. Groups of prisoners in six other prisons joined the strike by also refusing to work.   

On Dec. 13, the GDC issued a news release claiming the four prisons where there had been complete strikes -- Hays State Prison in the northwest corner of Georgia, and Macon State Prison, Telfair State Prison, and Smith State Prison in the black belt to the south -- had been put into lockdown, and no prisoners had been permitted to leave their cells.

Leaders of the strike are relying on Elaine Brown, former chairperson of the Black Panther Party and a co-founder of Georgia's Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice, to gather outside support. Brown formed the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners' Rights for individuals and organizations wanting to stand in solidarity with the strikers. The Coalition expects to meet with GDC Commissioner Brian Owens tomorrow.

Prisoners in contact with media outlets have stressed the cohesion of strikers across race and ethnic lines. "They want to break up the unity we have here," said an anonymous strike leader in an interview with the Black Agenda Report. "We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground."

Prison officials responded to the strike by turning off the hot water, transferring prisoners they believe to be strike leaders, and confiscating cell phones.  Cell phones are contraband in Georgia's prisons, but widely available for sale from correctional officers.  

The full list of demands:

* A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC 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 punishments, 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 PUNISHMENTS: 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 over-crowded, 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.

Kung Li is a fellow at the Open Society Foundation and is the former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.