Inmates in Georgia Prisons Use Contraband Phones to
By SARAH WHEATON
Published: December 13, 2010
The prison protest has entered the wireless age.
Inmates in at least seven Georgia prisons have used
contraband cellphones to coordinate a nonviolent strike
this weekend, saying they want better living conditions
and to be paid for work they do in the prisons.
Inmates said they would not perform chores, work for
the Corrections Department's industrial arm or shop at
prison commissaries until a list of demands are
addressed, including compensation for their work, more
educational opportunities, better food and sentencing
The protest began Thursday, but inmates said that
organizers had spent months building a web of disparate
factions and gangs - groups not known to cooperate -
into a unified coalition using text messaging and word
Officials at the Georgia Department of Corrections said
Monday that four facilities remain in a lockdown status
and there have been no major incidents or issues
Inmates complained of scattered clashes with guards.
Smuggled cellphones have been commonplace in prisons
for years; Charles Manson was caught with one in a
California penitentiary this month.
Officials worry that inmates will use them to issue
orders to accomplices on the outside or to plan escape
But the Georgia protest appears to be the first use of
the technology to orchestrate a grass-roots movement
Reached on their cellphones inside several prisons, six
participants in the strike described a feat of social
networking more reminiscent of Capitol Hill
vote-whipping than jailhouse rebellion.
Conditions at the state prisons have been in decline,
the inmates said.
But "they took the cigarettes away in August or
September, and a bunch of us just got to talking, and
that was a big factor," said Mike, an inmate at the
Smith State Prison in Downing who declined to give his
The organizers set a date for the start and, using
contact numbers from time spent at other prisons or
connections from the outside, began sending text
messages to inmates known to hold sway."
Anybody that has some sort of dictatorship or
leadership amongst the crowds," said Mike, one of
several prisoners who contacted The New York Times to
publicize their strike.
"We have to come together and set aside all
differences, whites, blacks, those of us that are
affiliated in gangs."
Now, Mike said, every dormitory at participating
prisons has at least one point man with a phone who can
keep the other inmates in the loop.
Miguel, another prisoner at Smith who also declined to
give his full name, estimated that about 10 percent of
all inmates had phones."
We text very frequently," he said. "We try and keep up
with what's going on in the news and what's going on at
other facilities. Those are our voices."
They are also a source of profit to the people
providing the contraband. Miguel said he paid $400 for
a phone that would have cost $20 on the street.
Mike said he bought his through a guard. "That's how a
lot of us get our phones," Mike said.
Inmates said guards had started confiscating the
phones, and they complained that hot water and heat had
been turned off.
The Corrections Department placed several of the
facilities where inmates planned to strike under
indefinite lockdown on Thursday, according to local
"We're hearing in the news they're putting it down as
we're starting a riot, so they locked all the prison
down," said an inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion who
refused to give his name.
But, he said, "We locked ourselves down."
The inmates contend that if they have a source of
income in the prison and better educational
opportunities to prepare them for release, violence and
recidivism will go down.
But the Department of Corrections has not publicly
acknowledged the protest.
Mike said that the leaders were focused on telling
inmates to remain patient, and not to consider
resorting to violence.
The inmates' closest adviser outside prison walls is
Elaine Brown, a longtime advocate for prisoners whose
son is incarcerated at Macon State Prison, one of the
other major protest sites.
A former Black Panther leader who is based in Oakland,
Calif., Ms. Brown helped distill the inmate complaints
into a list of demands.
She held a conference call on Sunday evening to develop
a strategy with various groups, including the Georgia
chapter of the National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People and the Nation of Islam.
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