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Ga. prisoner protest puts spotlight on institutionalized slavery…

December 17, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( For nearly a week, prisoners throughout the state of Georgia have been engaged in one of the largest prison protests in this nation’s history. Why is this not plastered across mainstream media, blogs, and 24 hour cable news? The simple answer maybe that the more we focus on prisoners’ rights, the more we are forced to focus on human rights and community transformation.

It is erroneously taught in many U.S. schools that the 13th amendment abolished all slavery, when in fact the amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The italicized text leaves a powerful “loophole” in the American narrative of equality and freedom. In fact, the conditions in many U.S. prisons continue to spiral towards a peculiar form of industrial slavery.

The cost of not noticing the disproportionate incarceration of black people and the steady erosion of already limited rights of prisoners may allow the abuses of the past to be revisited in the present.

For many, prisoners’ rights is a phrase that riles confusion, concern and sometimes anger. Commonly the phrase is thought of as oxymoronic with the suggestion the incarcerated have traded their rights for incarceration. While this may make for a good sound byte, conviction should not be a relinquishing of human rights, while all too often it is. The images of country club prisons are grossly exaggerated and are seldom the type of prisons in which many from the black community land. Prisons have been and remain sites of harsh regulation, extremely structured living, and heavy surveillance.

While there are differences among prisons, rarely is prison a place that people enjoy. The fear of “club Fed” has lead to the continued rolling back of prisoners’ rights to basic needs like educational programs, quality health care, avoidance of cruel and unusual punishment, and the ability to file lawsuits. The continued erosion of basic rights that provide safety, well-being, and rehabilitation is tied to a longer history of prison activism.

In the early 1970s George Jackson became famous for his writings that reached beyond prison walls which concentrated on the revolutionary potential of prisoners and the black masses. While he was writing he was also organizing for prisoners’ rights by fighting issues like guard brutality, violence in prison — particularly sexual assault, lack of educational materials for prisoners and a biased parole system, all problems that remain today.

The prisoners on strike are demanding: a living wage for work, educational opportunities, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, access to families, and just parole hearings. All of these demands are reasonable and important if we, as a society, are serious about rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

The United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people per capita and in total that any other nation in the world. The sharp growth in incarceration has left more black people in prison today than there were black people enslaved 1850 causing Michelle Alexander and others to call it “the new Jim Crow.”

The effects of this mass incarceration and the poor conditions within prisons bleed back into our communities. Khalilah Brown-Dean’s research finds that communities where higher numbers of the incarcerated are drawn form and return to suffer from lower political engagement and are dis-empowered beyond simply those who are incarcerated. Incarceration is not the issue of those who become imprisoned; it is a problem that affects the families and communities they leave behind.

If we want our communities to get stronger, we must make sure the human rights and rehabilitative prospects of those in prison are strengthened. Supporting the Georgia prisoners strike is an important step in making sure our community members, both those at home and away, get what they need to make themselves better and our community better.

While mainstream media has failed to fully cover the strike, we cannot afford to ignore the needs of the Georgia prisoners or prisoners throughout the United States. If we ignore the needs of the incarcerated, what message are we sending about justice, rehabilitation, and community?

Written By R. L’Heureux Lewis

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