Longtime prison activist and former chair of the Black Panther Party. Her books include The Condemnation of Little B: New Age Racism in America and A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.
At least four prisons in Georgia remain in lockdown five days after prisoners went on strike in protest of poor living and working conditions. Using cell phones purchased from guards, the prisoners coordinated the nonviolent protests to stage the largest prison strike in U.S. history. There are reports of widespread violence and brutality by the guards against the prisoners on strike. We speak to longtime prison activist Elaine Brown of the newly formed group Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: "Seize the Time" by Elaine Brown, who is our next guest. That’s right.
At least four prisons in Georgia remain in lockdown five days after prisoners went on strike in protest of poor living and working conditions. Using cell phones purchased from the guards, the prisoners were able to coordinate the protests across Georgia. On Monday, Georgia officials confirmed four prisons are still in lockdown: Hays State Prison in Trion, Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe, Telfair State Prison in Helena, and Smith State Prison in Glennville. There have also been reports of prisoners going on strike in several other facilities.
The prisoners say they’ll continue refusing to leave their cells or perform their jobs until they receive better medical care and nutrition, more educational opportunities, payment for the work they do in the prisons. In addition, they’re demanding just parole decisions, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, and better access to their families.
Well, joining us now is the longtime prison activist Elaine Brown. She’s a member of the newly formed group Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoners’ Rights. She’s the former chair of the Black Panther Party. She’s joining us from Berkeley, California. Up until recently she lived in Atlanta, Georgia.
Elaine Brown, it‘s being called the biggest prison strike in U.S. history. Explain what’s happening.
ELAINE BROWN: These men created what is effectively a spontaneous decision by networking with each other and saying, you know, “We’re tired of all of the abuse we’ve been suffering here,” as so many other prisoners before them have said. "We’re going to do something, but the something we’re going to do is not to try to initiate a violent response or initiate violence, but to simply say we will not work until we’re paid," and the other demands and petitions that they have made, as you’ve outlined. And t hey made a decision that that would be on December 9th.
I have no idea why they picked that date and how they ended up getting perhaps ten prisons involved. But at that point, of course, the guards and the administration became aware of their intention. And so, when they locked down on the night of the 8th, their decision was to not get up. And they didn’t. But the prison pretends, and the administration has pretended, that they locked the men down. But they’re talking about four prisons, and there were probably ten in the initial one-day strike, as it was slated to be. They have refused — we’re in day six, and they are still holding out and saying they will not come out and work unless they can sit down at the table and begin to get their demands met and their issues dealt with.
AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, your son is in the Macon State Prison? He is there, still on lockdown there?
ELAINE BROWN: Not only is he on lockdown, but he’s in the hole right now, because from almost day one or so, I was informed that he was taken off to the hole, deemed some sort of leader. Just for the sake of the record, because somebody asked — well, said, “Well, I understand Elaine Brown doesn’t have a son.” Well, I didn’t give birth to this boy. I have known him for 15 years, and I have been with him for that long, since he was incarcerated and put into an adult facility at 14 years old. And he’s done 14 years now. And so, he is my son for all — in all meaningful ways.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the conditions in the Georgia state prison system, Elaine Brown?
ELAINE BROWN: Well, I’m sure they’re not very much different from other prisons, I mean, or as the men would say, the chain gang or the camp they’re in. You know, you have overcrowded conditions. There is no activity other than the work tasks that they’re assigned to do. In other words, there’s no real educational opportunities. There’s no exercise. There’s nothing else. The food is bad. They have poor nutrition. They have crowded — overcrowded cells. A lot of the day-to-day thing, I think the most important part is that, as it was outlined many years ago in a Stanford study conducted by Dr. Phil Zimbardo, one of the most important things is that the constant violence being perpetrated against them by guards, who with their own idle time look to try and instigate an incident here or there, so there’s a lot of screaming, hollering, you know, aggressive behaviors that go on. And so, there’s always some incident jumping off, as it were, and so forth and so on. It’s just a life of idle — idleness and violence and a lack of any basic human condition.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what they do in their work. I mean, among the conditions, the demands of the prisoners are a living wage for work, talking about being a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. What are the work conditions? What are they paid? Are they paid? What are they —
ELAINE BROWN: No, in Georgia, they’re not even paid. They’re not paid one dime in the state of Georgia. I mean, the State Department of Corrections would like to say they have some workers that are paid. There are probably some people doing life without parole who work at the Governor’s mansion, maybe 15 of them who might be getting some money. But the prisoners in the state of Georgia are paid nothing at all.
Now, that’s not to say that the prisoners in other states are being paid. They’re mostly being paid a dollar a day to 50 cents an hour. That would probably be the maximum. So they’re not exactly being paid enough money to accumulate anything over the years of their incarceration and maybe come out of the prison with more than the $25 check they give them upon release in the state of Georgia. So, they are not paid one single dime, and they are required to clean the floors, clean the showers, do the yard work, do the dishes, cook the food — in other words, to maintain the prison itself.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a report out of the Black Agenda Report, and it talks about how there’s no educational programs available beyond GED with the exception of a single program that trains inmates to be Baptist ministers.
ELAINE BROWN: That’s absolutely correct. I believe that’s at Phillips State Prison, and it’s a school out of Louisiana. And I think there are about 20 people even enrolled in that program. So, it’s almost pointless to even mention it.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this largest prison strike in U.S. history was organized, sort of redefining the term "cell phone," Elaine Brown.
ELAINE BROWN: Well, you know, a lot of people have been fascinated by this, and I’m glad that you made note immediately that — you know, so many people say, “Well, these guys have contraband." Well, the greatest avenue for their obtaining these cell phones is by sales from guards, and these guards are selling these phones at exorbitant prices. I learned the other day that one guy said he paid $800 to a guard for a cell phone that was probably worth about 50 bucks. So, that’s the first point that has to be made, because people imagine that there’s all this smuggling going on — and there is, but it’s on the part of — in the main, on the part of guards that are inside these facilities.
The cell phone played a part, but the other part was that there are leaders of different factions in the prison, and they were able to sort of discuss what could they do. Instead of fighting among themselves, is there anything that they could do to try to change the conditions of being just constantly bombarded with violent attacks, with, you know, idle time, and so forth and so on? And they — at some point, a number of them just decided, "Well, we just shouldn’t work." And it just became a prairie fire. It was truly the spark that lit the prairie fire. And everybody was saying, “Well, I’m down with that. We’re not going to get up.” And each group — you know, you have blacks in various subsets, and you have Muslims, you have Mexicans and other Latinos, Hispanics, you have Whites, you have Rastafarians, you have Christians — all of them, for reasons that I cannot explain how they suddenly understood how to be unified, decided, “Yeah, we’re not working, and we’re down with this, and we’re not going to get up, and we’re going to stay united.” And across the prisons, in the various sets, they called each other, sent text messages, and they all agreed to do it. And they agreed on the date, and that was December 9.
AMY GOODMAN: Elaine, I interviewed you a long time ago when your memoir came out, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. You’re the former chair of the Black Panther Party. Can you tell us a little bit about your life and how you came to be a prison activist today?
ELAINE BROWN: Well, it’s pretty — you know, it’s sort of organic, very much like this prisoner strike. You know, we used to say in the Black Panther Party, “Repression breeds resistance.” Pardon me. I was born in the ghettos of North Philadelphia — I was raised, rather, in the ghettos of North Philadelphia. Even though I went to sort of privileged schools and so forth and so on, I was very conscious of that. When I ultimately joined the Black Panther Party at around 24 years old, I knew then that I was fully conscious that the things that I experienced in my life were a part of a larger picture and that I was a part of a group of people who were an oppressed group. From that point on, the question was liberation. The aspects of our — of liberation and the ending of all exploitation, as we would say it, was just a matter of looking at all the various aspects of our oppression and how it played itself out. In the Black Panther Party, there was a 10-point platform and program that articulated some of the manifestations of our general oppression, talking about lack of education, as a matter of fact, not having enough food and housing. In essence, what we called for was freedom and right of self-determination.
We recognized that our plight was not much different as black people than other oppressed people, and we joined arms and forces with a variety of other groups like the Brown Berets, the Red Guard, the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and so forth. And then we linked ourselves to the international struggle of people around the world for national liberation in Vietnam, throughout the continent of Africa, and in Latin America, South America. So, we became internationalists.
And I remain that person. So it isn’t complicated to draw the line from that struggle to the struggle of the most oppressed group in America: the prisoner class. The prisoners in this country, as you know, make up the largest prisoner group in the world. America confines more people than any single country at a higher rate and a higher — and the largest number. Fifty percent of those prisoners, or nearly 50 percent of them, are black men. And so, we have to ask the question, how did that come to be? Either the black men are the only people — when we consider that we black people make up approximately 12 to 13 percent of the overall population and yet almost 50 percent of the prison population, we have to ask the question, is this the result of some genetic flaw in black people? Are we obviously some sort of criminally minded? Or is there something wrong in the scheme of things? Obviously, the latter is what I would say. And so, I’ve committed myself to bringing people out of prison.
I have a very close friend who was a member of the Black Panther Party here in California, who has been in prison since 1969, over 41 years, Chip Fitzgerald. So I helped to organize the Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald. These people have been buried in prison for their political beliefs, and they’ve been buried in prison for their poverty. There are no rich people languishing in the prisons of America. So, there’s a class question. There’s a race question. And this is just a continuation of expressing my efforts or of continuing my efforts toward the goal of the liberation of all oppressed people.
AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, I want to thank you very much for being with us and just ask you a final question about what you expect the outcome of — it was planned as a one-day strike, December 9th, biggest strike in U.S. history in prisons. But with the lockdown continuing in a number of the state prisons in Georgia, what’s going to happen?
ELAINE BROWN: Well, we — this coalition that you have mentioned, the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoner Rights, which includes everything from the NAACP national office and the state office to the Nation of Islam and a number of other organizations, All of Us or None, so forth, across the country, we’ve been talking in conference calls over the last two days. We are having a meeting at this point with either the commissioner or deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections. We plan on imploring them to first stop instigating the situation and trying to escalate it to a violent confrontation, which is what they are doing by prodding men with everything, turning off the heat, beating people, forcing them out of their cells, turning off the hot water, destroying and trashing people’s property, not feeding them, and so forth and so on, all kinds of tactics to instigate a violent response. So our first goal is to make sure this does not become Attica, although it is not like Attica because the prisoners have not taken hostages or anything of this sort. They are simply not leaving their cells.
AMY GOODMAN: Elaine Brown, we’re going to have to leave it there.
ELAINE BROWN: And then the next step —
AMY GOODMAN: But I thank you very much for being with us.
ELAINE BROWN: Alright, thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Longtime prison activist —
ELAINE BROWN: OK, thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — former chair of the Black Panther Party. Thank you so much. We’ll continue to follow the Georgia strike.