In The South, ‘Georgia Prisoners Speak’ Organizes Against Incarceration From The Inside
Inside Georgia’s prisons, a prisoner-led organization called Georgia Prisoners Speak (GPS) is fighting to overcome communications barriers to the outside world and engage in abolitionist political education.
GPS uses a variety of methods to organize and advocate for incarcerated people’s rights. This includes connecting prisoners for organized grievances efforts, educating prisoners through underground channels, and working with journalists and advocates to disseminate abolitionist thought. GPS also employs public relations tactics to challenge standard policing and correctional narratives, often using social media to counter the GDC’s version of events.
Founded in 2020 by a group of Georgia prisoners during the height of the pandemic and violent upheavals in state facilities, GPS boasts more than 300 incarcerated and affiliated “free world” members. They aim to build solidarity among incarcerated people and fight against the dehumanizing conditions within the GDC. Georgia has the fourth greatest incarceration rate in the nation, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative, “locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth.”
Although reform circles often treat incarcerated people as passive subjects with little agency, prisoner organizing has a long and rich history that dates back to the early days of the modern prison system. Throughout modern U.S. history, incarcerated people have organized to improve their conditions and challenge the legitimacy of the prison-industrial complex. The most visible examples include the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, where incarcerated people rose up over what they described as being “treated like beasts.”
In Georgia, one of the most significant examples of prisoner organizing was the mid 20th century Georgia Prison Quarry Strike. In 1951, incarcerated folks at that facility organized resistance to the inhumane conditions they faced, including the use of forced labor in the prison quarries. Roughly 30 prisoners known as the Heel String Gang severed their Achilles’ tendons in protest. Just a few years later, in 1956, 31 prisoners would resist by breaking their own legs.
The 2022 prison strike in neighboring Alabama saw prisoners across the state organize a coordinated protest for decarceration through pathways such as parole and medical furlough. These examples demonstrate the power and prevalence of prisoner organizing.
GPS’ methods of organizing are varied, and they rely heavily on the use of technology to connect members and spread their message. One of the ways GPS organizes is through a weekly report, which provides updates on ongoing issues, advocacy efforts, and calls to action. This report is circulated among GPS members and their allies on the outside. GPS also uses the internet to share their message and connect with potential supporters. For example, in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, various GPS members began reaching out to the Southern Center for Human Rights and other organizations. Later in 2021, much of this information received via various reports and complaints, some of which were provided by GPS, would be used by SCHR to induce the DOJ to investigate the Georgia Department of Corrections.
GPS has been particularly effective in challenging the standard policing and correctional rhetoric that often dominates discussions of prison reform. The group uses PR tactics to get their message out and to frame their issues in ways that resonate with the general public. They have been hard at work attempting to get the attention of journalists, advocates like Susan Burns and Emily Shelton, and policymakers like Josh McLaurin and Jon Ossoff, and their hope is that their message will begin to shift the conversation around criminal justice reform in Georgia.
For example, in 2019 and 2020 GPS advocates worked to supply Ignite Justice and They Have No Voice with critical information regarding unsanitary prison conditions, understaffing, rampant violence, and uncontrolled COVID. That information was used by prison reform advocate Susan Burns, founder of They Have No Voice, when she presented a set of demands and suggestions to prison leadership (including one that the National Guard be used to man the deadly prison system) to address the crises. Additionally, Emily Shelton, of Ignite Justice, also received this same information from GPS and would attempt to present her organization’s own set of demands and suggestions, although to no avail.
GPS has played a crucial role in supplementing the ongoing federal investigation into the Georgia Department of Corrections as well. GPS members provide weekly updates on the conditions inside the prisons, including reports of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. They also connect prisoners with lawyers and other advocates who can help them file grievances and seek justice. GPS has been instrumental in connecting prisoners for organized grievances efforts, which have been successful in improving conditions in some facilities. For example, in 2020 a grievance campaign was initiated during the height of the pandemic that resulted in more than 120 grievances being filed in protest to sack lunches (two peanut butter sandwiches) which were given for nearly three months, three times daily. While that may not seem like a lot, GPS members say it’s quite the feat to get that many prisoners to cooperate on a single initiative.
An additional feature of GPS’ work is education. The group has created an underground network of communication which allows prisoners to educate themselves and each other about abolitionist thought and organizing strategies. GPS has become a hub for the dissemination of abolitionist ideas, such as redistributing government spending from police and prisons towards addressing the underlying harm and vulnerability, and has helped to create a generation of informed and empowered prisoners. They have found ways to get abolitionist videos and lectures to prisoners; while books and pamphlets can be sent in via numerous supporters and then passed around the system.
GPS educates prisoners through a series of “underground railroad” channels and classrooms, For example, a computer coding course put together by GPS spokesperson BT has over 300 active subscribers and 3,000 downloads, while the prisoner rights and law group has over 200 participants.
Finally, GPS works with journalists and advocates, often anonymously or with little recognition, to supplement journalistic investigations into GDC conditions that otherwise focus exclusively in the department’s perspective. By providing additional information and perspectives, GPS is able to amplify the voices of prisoners and bring attention to the issues facing them. To illustrate, recently GPS and anonymous prison staff provided important information to this journalist in order to provide coverage of a gang war that sparked off while the U.S. Justice Department was in a GDC facility investigating, highlighting the nuclear levels of violence and understaffing currently dominating Georgia’s prison system.
“We stand committed as a movement against the use of strategic indifference, which is no sound policy to quell public fear of crime nor create rehabilitative conditions,” says BT, explaining the position of his group’s demands. “We stand intolerant of inhumane treatment, which does not promote public safety and fails to affirm the human dignity of those incarcerated.”
GPS has a list of ten specific demands, which it has made an effort to circulate via letters and emails to various organizations, legislators, and journalists. Considering how reasonable and humane these demands are, it seems odd that the response hasn’t been more laudable. GPS’ demands include more dignified living conditions, separation of gangs from the unaffiliated population, and the implementation of a behavior-based parole system. Moreover, they demand:
- Rehabilitation and education: “focus on rehabilitation and provide genuine educational and vocational training programs to help prisoners acquire real-world job skills, prepare for reentry into society, and reduce recidivism.”
- Quality medical care: “ensure that all inmates have access to timely, quality healthcare services, including preventative care, dental care and specialized care for chronic conditions.”
- Fair and transparency disciplinary processes: “implement disciplinary processes that are transparent, fair and evidence based, with the goal of promoting safety and personal growth rather than punishment.”
- Fair and transparent grievance processes: “implement a real grievance process that is transparent and fair, and without fear of retaliation by prison staff.”
- Family and community connections: “make phone calls free; encourage and facilitate regular contact between inmates and their families, as well as provide opportunities for community engagement, in order to support reintegration and reduce recidivism.”
- Eliminate solitary confinment: “promote the health, safety and rehabilitation of inmates through means other than torture.”
GPS’ online presence is a critical component of their advocacy work. GPS posts videos demonstrating abysmal prison conditions, gang wars, understaffing, sleeping staff, gross medical neglect, and inedible food. Additionally, they maintain an affiliation with groups like They Have No Voice, The Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia, Ignite Justice, and FAIR.
BT, 58, is the primary spokesperson for GPS. To prevent retaliation by prison officials, his real name is being protected by Shadowproof, as are the identities of all incarcerated sources herein. He explained that the group’s mission is to “empower prisoners to become agents of change in their own lives and in the wider society.” He emphasized the importance of education and organizing, and he praised the work of GPS members in advocating for themselves and for other prisoners.
“We believe that prisoners should have a say in the conditions they live in. We want to empower prisoners to advocate for themselves and to be a part of the solution.”
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“The prison system is behind walls that the public can’t see beyond. And the only way that they can is if we can get the information out through whatever means. If you want to know what our work is about, it’s ‘We have to take care of ourselves,’ that’s what it’s about,” BT explained. “We can’t trust the prison system to do it for us. And that means not only informing the public of what’s going on here, but also helping ourselves to learn and improve ourselves so that when we get out, we can be better people, you know, active and productive citizens in society.”
Another GPS member we’re calling Bran, 30, shared a similar perspective. “We are fighting for our rights as human beings. We want to be treated with dignity and respect, and we want to be given the opportunity to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society.”
Advocates who work closely with GPS praised the group’s effectiveness in challenging the dominant narrative about criminal justice reform in Georgia. Emily Shelton, the co-founder of Ignite Justice, a non-profit organization that focuses on advocacy for incarcerated people and their families, said GPS “has been a critical part of the prison abolitionist movement in Georgia, providing an essential counter-narrative to the rhetoric coming out of the Georgia Department of Corrections”
Aricka Rodriguez is a prison abolition advocate and theorist who mostly works with incarcerated people and organizations in Georgia and California. She has loved ones who have been incarcerated and has also experienced the prison system firsthand.
“GPS is an essential organization in the fight for prison reform. By amplifying the voices of prisoners, they are able to bring attention to the issues facing those inside the prison system,” explains Rodriguez. “Most people, including lawmakers, don’t really know what’s going on behind prison walls. As for advocates like me, GPS gives us real information that allows us to better serve them and challenge prison officials.”
Despite their efforts, GPS faces significant challenges and risks. One of their biggest challenges is communicating with each other and the outside world. GPS members like all prisoners have heavily monitored communications and restricted access to phones. They also lack access to the internet, making communication difficult. The organization relies on underground channels to communicate. We have decided not to disclose those methods to protect them.
Another significant challenge is the risk associated with advocating for prisoner rights. In Georgia, prisoners are prohibited from organizing under Section 5(c)(1) & (2) of the GDC’s inmate handbook, which reads, “participation in any meeting or gathering which has not been specifically authorized by the institutional staff” constitutes a substantial threat to institutional security.”
Additionally, “planning of or participation in any group demonstration, disturbance, riot, strike, refusal to work, work stoppage, or work slowdown,” is liable to result in charges. GPS members are already vulnerable and marginalized, and they face retaliation from correctional officers and prison administrators for their advocacy work. This retaliation can take many forms, including physical abuse, isolation, and other forms of punishment.
Shelton emphasized the challenges faced by GPS members, stating, “The risks associated with GPS’ work cannot be overstated. These are people who are already vulnerable and marginalized, and they are putting themselves at risk to advocate for their rights.”
In response to these challenges, GPS takes extensive precautions to protect its members’ anonymity. There’s even a group where prisoners can learn about privacy and anonymity as a key to successful resistance and organizing.
In the meantime, GPS has its hands full. The state is still waging a war on “contraband” cell phones, with plans to utilize signal jammers in an effort to tamp down the torrent of media exposing fatal and unsanitary prison conditions. GPS members are involved in life-or-death advocacy all while still struggling to survive one of the country’s most understaffed and violent prison systems. BT says between the constant, unjustified denials of parole and a determination by prison officials to remain deliberately indifferent to prison conditions, he worries about the state of prisons over the next 5 years.
“I mean, it’s definitely not going to get better,” said BT. “It just seems like rather than being concerned with providing an environment that is safe and rehabilitative, which is what prison is in political rhetoric but not practice, they’re more concerned with stopping us from being comfortable while in here and stopping us from showing the public just how bad things have gotten.”