The other day, I was inspired. I was also shocked, amazed and uplifted by the courage being shown by the individuals who helped to pull off the largest prison strike in United States history. The effort evolved by sneaking cell phones into the facilities, leading to inmate communication and virtually unprecedented coordination between six different prisons. I wanted to help them.
The inmates are protesting against slavery, which is actually still legal in the United States. The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution abolishes slavery for most of us, but it deliberately leaves one gaping loophole: Being convicted of a crime. In that regard, the Constitution makes it clear that enslaving another human being is OK as long as you’ve found a way to label them as being a bad person.
To that end, corporations now earn millions of dollars from prison labor. The participants in this labor pool are not given a choice, they are forced into corporate servitude. Given that black and brown people are more likely to be searched, arrested and incarcerated, we have a prison system that is filled with black men. Justice requires money, and public defenders are only wired to offer plea deals. So many of the men and women in prison are either innocent of the crimes for which they’ve been convicted or are less guilty than others who were able to walk free.
The system is not only structured to exploit the inmates during their period of incarceration, it is designed to ensure that they return to slavery, even if they are released. In prison, there is limited access to education beyond a GED, and most of the inmates can’t get jobs once they go home. If they choose to go to college, many of them are not eligible for Pell grants. Therefore, the only way they can provide for their families is to return to the same life of crime that originally took them to the iron plantation, also known as the prison industrial complex.
The inmates in Georgia are demanding what any other human being would expect: access to education, decent health care, the ability to see their families, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, and just parole decisions. The idea that we’ve been convinced that someone labeled to be a criminal deserves no human rights actually makes our society less than human itself.
I spoke with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton about the activities going on in the Georgia prisons, and they were glad to see the inmates taking a stand. I am working with the Your Black World Coalition and National Action Network to coordinate with the efforts of those in Georgia who are fighting on behalf of the inmates. The work being done in Georgia is significant primarily because it can serve as a model for other inmates around the country who wish to demand basic freedoms.
The reason that African-Americans need to pay attention to what’s happening in Georgia is quite simple: prisons are killing our families. Black men are being left uneducated by a public school machine that is designed to send them into an economic system for which they are ill-prepared. When a young man has no job, no education and nothing but idle time, he finds himself in a ready-made prison bed facilitating his path to becoming a pawn of corporate America.
The Georgia prison system ranks with Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana as being among the worst in the nation. It is no coincidence that these prisons are also located in states where slavery existed not too long ago.
According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, over 61 percent of Georgia’s inmates are African-American. The state’s incarceration rate is 16 percent higher than the national average. In fact, the state is second only to Texas when it comes to the percentage of its citizens it sends to the big house.
Prisons are big money for those who have a stake it their success. Over 16 percent of Georgia State employees work for the prison system. Also, Georgia’s prison population has increased by over a quarter during the last decade, while this increase is not due to an increase in crime. The lack of serious oversight in the system has pushed us down a path of abuse, corruption and consistent violation of human rights.
I wish I could say that Georgia is the only state that has “the prison problem,” but the truth is that the problem is everywhere. The money is just too great, and our nation has become addicted to inmate labor. So, for the same reasons that it was not economical to abolish slavery 150 years ago, it is not financially feasible to reform the prison industrial complex. Therefore, we must wait for politicians who realize that it’s simply the right thing to do. Are you listening Mr. Attorney General and Mr. President? Black families across America need you.