Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay

Georgia inmates strike in fight for pay

December 14th, 2010 by Adam Crisp in News

Staff File Photo by Chad McClure/Chattanooga Times Free Press Inmates at Hays State Prison make their way back to their housing area in this file photo.

Georgia inmates are reportedly striking across the state, refusing to go out on work details or perform chores until they are paid or see improved living conditions.

Georgia corrections officials wouldn't confirm or deny a strike Monday, but said four prisons across the state were on lockdown for a fifth day after they got wind of a rumored protest late last week.

The group organizing the strike contends that at least four state prisons across Georgia are still participating in the strike, including Hays State Prison an hour south of Chattanooga in Trion. Along with Hays, other prisons on lockdown are Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena and Smith State Prison in Glennville.

At various points over the last five days, the group has said inmates in anywhere from six to 11 prisons are striking.

Going by the name "Concerned Coalition," strike organizers say they won't settle for anything less than payment for inmates who perform work while incarcerated. The group, consisting of three women from Atlanta and South Georgia, recently partnered with the Georgia NAACP, which is calling for a federal investigation into prison conditions in Georgia.

"These men are pretty much committed," said Elaine Brown, a spokeswoman for the group organizing the strike. "They are behind walls, their lives are totally controlled and they are being asked to work for free ... and are treated like animals. I don't see how this is not an obvious human rights issue."

Inmates have reportedly organized the strikes through contraband cell phones smuggled into facilities. Brown said she was still in contact with inmates Monday.

Among prisoners' demands are a "living wage," educational opportunities, increased visitation and improved food and facilities, according to a list of demands distributed to media.

But at the top of their demands is the living wage, Brown said.

"If they want to get paid, they shouldn't commit crimes," said state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, chairman of the Senate Institutions and Property Committee, which oversees prisons.

Besides, he said, "If we started paying inmates, we'd also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for."

Inmates perform road cleanup for states and local governments, and they provide labor to a handful of prison-run enterprises that make furniture, garments, signs and printed products.

Currently, Georgia does not pay inmates anything for their work, but Grant said inmates are not required to participate in work details.

Tennessee, on the other hand, pays inmates between 17 cents and 54 cents per hour for work performed while incarcerated, according to a Department of Correction spokeswoman.

"I don't think inmates in Georgia have ever been paid," said Georgia Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, who serves on the state House Institutions and Property Committee. "After all, they are behind those prison walls for a reason. They are there to make restitution to society for whatever their crime was."

Brown said Monday that a deputy commissioner of corrections has agreed to meet with her group and members of the Georgia NAACP.

But political will to pay inmates any wage at all is very low, Reece said.

"I can't see paying inmates anything," Reece said. "I would much rather take that money and put 25 more state troopers on the highway."

She said meals and living conditions in Georgia prisons are, to her knowledge, in line with federal regulations. And she said some inmates who take part in special work programs can be paid up to $7.25 an hour, but such programs are available only to model inmates.

"Most of the men that I have encountered on (unpaid) work details take real pride in their work and are appreciative of the chance to work," Reece said. "If they weren't out working, they'd just be sitting behind the fence."

Security has been tightened at the four prisons on lockdown since Thursday, corrections officials said. There have been no major incidents or issues reported, a department news release stated.

"During the lockdown, inmates are confined to their cells and there is no visitation, telephone calls or commissary visits," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristen Stancil said in the release. "Georgia's 26 other state prisons are operating under normal conditions."

Once a security assessment is complete, some privileges could be restored, officials said.

"The department's mission of maintaining safe and secure facilities is non-negotiable and will not be jeopardized," said Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens. "The department will ensure appropriate safety measures are in place before the lockdown is lifted."

Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at acrisp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/adam_crisp