Twelve days ago a group of men located in different cities around Georgia began a massive, coordinated, peaceful protest in support of justice and human rights. They used the principles of non-violence that Mahatma Gandhi pioneered while leading the Indian independence movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. utilized in the struggle for civil rights. These men have refused to work or eat so that their voices might be heard on issues like improved health care, better educational opportunities, nutritional meals, and – yes – fair parole decisions.
These protesters are wards of the Georgia Department of Corrections – prisoners of different races and religions who nevertheless banded together across ethnic and geographical lines in support of a common cause. They are petitioning for civil treatment and opportunities for personal betterment in an institutional system that is supposedly designed to not only contain but also to reform and improve. And they are human beings with human rights, guaranteed to them by many international covenants to which the U.S. is a party. One of these is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” (ICCPR, Article 10) The rights of prisoners – the exact points around which the inmates in Georgia have raised concern – are further laid out by the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, approved by the U.N. in 1957.
Unfortunately, there have been credible stories that guards have responded violently to these non-violent protests. At least four prisons have been placed on lockdown. According to reports from prisoner advocates, guards have allegedly used violent measures to force the men back to work. The reports include stories of beatings, guards destroying prisoners’ property, withholding heat and hot water and denying access to family members.
If the prisoners cannot speak up for themselves through non-violent measures, someone needs to speak up for them. That is why last week a coalition including the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP approached the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) for information – information on the allegations of abuse, but also information on the conditions that caused prisoners anguish in the first place.
On Dec. 20, the DOC allowed a fact-finding team composed of NAACP envoys and other prisoner rights advocates of advocates to visit Macon State Prison in order to interview inmates, assess living conditions and explore concerns that led to the strike. The delegation was able to confirm some of the concerns that the prisoners expressed, and will continue to engage to bring justice for the prisoners.
There are good reasons that the Georgia Department of Corrections should take the prisoners’ concerns seriously. Providing educational opportunities and fair parole has been shown to reduce recidivism and ensure that people who have paid their debt to society can return to their communities and become responsible citizens. This is an economic and social win-win for a state with an incarceration rate 16 percent higher than the national average and an annual taxpayer cost of $17,505 per inmate.
Prisoners may lose some rights when they are judged guilty and receive a jail sentence – by no means a subjective process in our penal system – but they are still human beings with legitimate needs. It is inspiring to see incarcerated men practicing non-violence, and encouraging for the redemptive power of the criminal justice system. We just need to ensure that prisoners are given the chance to redeem themselves.
Robert Rooks is the director of NAACP Criminal Justice Programs. Edward Dubose is president of the NAACP Georgia State Conference.