Bruce Dixon: Hunger strike follows brutal crackdown on prisoners who protested intolerable conditions
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Prisoners in a Georgia state prison are on hunger strike. If you live outside of Georgia, you’re likely not to have heard anything or very much about this, but they are on strike. It began with ten prisoners for about a month. Two are still on strike, and they are on day 47 of this strike.
And now joining us from Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss the strike is Bruce Dixon. Bruce is the managing editor of the Black Agenda Report. He’s had an extensive career as a union activist and in factories and plants. He’s also the cochair of the Georgia Green Party. And he joins us now, as I said, from Atlanta. Thanks for joining us, Bruce.
BRUCE DIXON, MANAGING EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the invite, Paul.
JAY: So first of all tell us the story. How did this begin? And why are they on hunger strike?
DIXON: It began in December 2010 when inmates at 11 or 12 Georgia prisons staged a peaceful strike, remaining in their cells and not going on work assignments. They were demanding simple things like transparency in inmate accounts, like wages for work, like educational programs behind the walls and such. Georgia prison officials retaliated, first by cutting off heat and hot water to some of the buildings, locking them down, and eventually with a wave of savage retaliatory beatings across multiple prisons. Some of the prisoners were beaten nearly to death and a couple of them hung in coldâ€”well, one in particular we know of, named Terrance Dean, was beaten into a coma and he hung between life and death. He was shuttled back and forth between several prisons and hospitals without the authorities notifying his family or the public.
JAY: Now, before we go on, let me just ask you. If I understand correctly, out of all of this, one guard was actually charged. Where is that? Has there been any accountability for what happened?
DIXON: Although the wave of beatings stretched across many prisons and the operation to move prisoners back and forth to conceal their condition would seem to have had the cooperation of departmental officials on the highest level, there were only two investigations done. And out of those two investigations, people struggled for months and months to get a DA to render any indictment. Finally the feds stepped in, and one prison guard has capitulated, and apparently he’s informing on the others, and he’s already surrendered and started to do his time.
JAY: Okay. Now pick up the story and get us to the beginning of the hunger strike.
DIXON: Okay. And after the strike, there was the brief period when community groups were allowed open access to two of the prisons and allowed to interview prisoners. But after that, the wave of savage retaliatory beatings commenced again, and 37 prisoners were rounded up whom the authorities believe were responsible for the prison strike. They were placed in close confinement, in solitary confinement in Jackson State Prison, the same maximum security institution where Troy Davis was murdered, and they’ve been there on close lockdown ever since.
JAY: Okay. So some of the leaders that were jailed here then begin a hunger strike, and it’s ten, if I understand correctly, at the start. So tell us what were their demands and what’s been happening.
DIXON: Their demands this time are rather simple. All they’re demanding now is that their status in solitary confinement be reviewed, as per written state procedure, every 30 days, so that the state should give a reason for why they are in solitary. They are also demanding that the state restore their families’ visitation privileges, because most of them have had these privileges arbitrarily suspended and the state has not deigned to explain why. Their mail and access to legal help is also being circumscribed by the state, and they have not, once again, been inclined to explain why. So they’re just demanding that. And they are demanding medical attention for some of the injuries that they suffered when they were beat down 19 months ago.
The last two prisoners who are still remaining on hunger strike now, Miguel Jackson and Kelvin Stevenson, ought to be evaluated by doctors, ought to receive medical care. If someone has been without fluids for nine or ten days, Georgia’s Department of Corrections departmental procedure says that they are to be evaluated by a physician. Miguel Jackson has gone more than 45 days now and has not seen a physician yet. Kelvin Stevenson, who is one of the people who were beat down 19 months ago, has also been more than 30 days without food, and he too has not been allowed to see a doctor. Neither of them are allowed to correspond with or see their families.
JAY: And how many days have they been without fluids now?
DIXON: Forâ€”not without fluids. I meant without food.
JAY: Okay. So they are getting fluids.
DIXON: They are getting fluids. They are getting fluids.
JAY: And what is their state of health? Or do we know?
DIXON: We don’t know. Their state of health cannot be good. You know, any time you go that long without food, you are endangering your life. These people are, as they said in a letter that they did send to the outside at the beginning of the strike, starving for change. They want to see some accountability for the practices of the Georgia Department of Corrections; and broader, they want to see us on the outside get up off our butts and be concerned and organize to do something about this prison state that we have allowed to develop.
JAY: Now, they do have access to lawyers, do they not? And if so, what are the lawyers saying?
DIXON: The lawyers are saying that they are still alive and that they are still resolute and that they are still not being afforded medical attention that they deserve. I have not talked to the lawyers at all. I’ve been talking to the families who talk to the lawyers. So I can’t tell you directly what the lawyers said.
JAY: Now, I guess it’s clear the state of Georgia’s sending a message: you must not rebel within Georgia’s prisons.
DIXON: Apparently that is the message. The visiting privileges of Delma Jackson, who is the wife of Miguel Jackson, were suspended last weekend after she spoke to the press for the first time. And so that clearly is the message, that if you rebel, that you will be punished, and if your relatives speak to the press, then you won’t get to talk to your relatives anymore either.
JAY: So give us a sense of the broader problems facing prisoners, and also a little sense of who’s in prison, and also in relation to the demographics of Georgia.
DIXON: The United States is the world’s first prison state. We lock up more people for longer and for less than anyone else does on this planet. African Americans, who are one-eighth of the nation’s population, make up over 40 percent of this nation’s prisoners. Latinos, who are another one-eighth, make up an additional 30 percent, and their numbers are climbing. So that means that between blacks and Latinos, who make up a quarter of the nation’s population, are three-quarters of its prisoners. In Georgia we have 1 in 13 adults who are either in prison, out on bail, or on parole, on bond, or some form of court supervision. That’s the highest number of any state in the union, 1 in 13 adults.
JAY: And would most of them be ineligible to vote?
DIXON: Anyone who has been convicted of a felony in Georgia on paper is eligible to get their voting rights restored, but the restoral process involves a lot of rigamarole and jumping through hoops that people are usually too busy trying to live their life to get to do. So, effectively there is still a lifetime ban on the vote for Georgia felons, although the law actually reads differently. Effectively that ban still exists, yes, sir.
JAY: And one of the things I understand was one of the demands was about wages for work. What is the situation in terms of work in the prisons?
DIXON: Overall in the prisons, not many prisoners are doing work. But prisoners do believe that if they do do work, they should be paid for it. That’s a human right. There’s a name for work without wages, isn’t there? They used to call that slavery.
JAY: What is the demographics of Georgia, in terms of racial demographics?
DIXON: Georgia is about 26 percent black. Georgia’s about 26 percent black. I think we have about 5 percent Latinos, and the rest is the rest. The majority of Georgia prisoners, however, are black and brown, the vast majority. Georgia locks up just under 60,000 prisoners, and our population here is about 11.5 million.
JAY: Now, youâ€”in one of the articles you wrote, you actually ask people to call some of the state officials. Explain to us what it was you’re asking people to do. And if you want, you might as well plug the numbers as well.
DIXON: It would help. Okay. People should call the Department of Corrections’ Brian Owens and express your concern for the rights of prisoners and their families who are on hunger strike, and ask that these people receive medical attention and the care that human beings deserve. And you should call Brian Owens at the Department of Corrections. He’s the head of the Department of Corrections.
JAY: Okay. Just one final question. Why are so many African Americans in jail, I mean, not just in Georgia, but across the country? But maybe you could focus on Georgia.
DIXON: That’s a rather complicated question, or at least it has a complicated answer. Back in the days of Jim Crow, Jim Crow was inflicted on all black people, regardless of class. The enormous numbers of African Americans who are in prison now are not your African Americans who’ve been to college. A college-educated black man now stands perhaps one-third the chance of going to prison than he did 25 or 30 years ago, whereas a young man who is a high school dropout has six times the likelihoodâ€”a young black man who’s a high school dropout has six times the likelihood of going to prison than he did 30 years ago.
So the prison state visits its afflictions upon us not just based on race, but by a combination of race and class. They are targetingâ€”the prison states targets lower-class, lower economic class blacks and Latinos. And in the South it’s a little different, too. I should say I’m from Chicago, from the North. When you go to the criminal courts [unintel.] Cook County in Chicago, you hardly see a white face. In the South, they actually do lock up white peopleâ€”poor white people, but there is a significant percentage of whites in the prisons in Georgia.
Lastly I should say, too, that there are white prisoners among the leaders of this prison strike and the hunger strike. The prisoners standing up for their rights are black, brown, and white, something that weâ€”which is the opposite of what we hear or think of when we think of prisons in the United States. Prisoners are standing together across those lines.
JAY: Okay. We’ll come back to you another time soon, Bruce, and we’ll talk more about all this and kind of dig into some of the issues of structural poverty and such and focus on Georgia. Thanks very much for joining us.
DIXON: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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