Business as usual ground to a halt December 9 at nine prisons across the state of Georgia. In what is being called the largest prison strike in American history, tens of thousands of prisoners internally organized a nonviolent protest, announcing to the state's Department of Corrections (DOC) that they would neither work nor leave their cells until their requests were heard. They weren't asking for bubble baths or afternoon tea; they were asking for basic human rights: access to education, nutrition, healthcare and compensation for their labor, among other things.
Recognizing the prisoners needed more allies, the ACLU of Georgia and coalition partners quickly stepped up to advocate for the prisoners. The ACLU and its partners met with DOC officials December 17 and sent teams into the prisons to investigate first-hand the reasons for the strike. The team's tour of Macon State Prison on December 20 affirmed what we already knew was needed — statewide strategic solutions to combat the epidemic of mass incarceration of American men, women and children.
As we lock up more and more people at a time when governments' budgets are shrinking, states are cutting corners when it comes to conditions inside prisons, leaving those who are locked up with no choice but to react in defense of their basic human rights. In the aftermath of the strike, the ACLU will advocate for comprehensive reform to criminal justice policies in Georgia, including a close examination of the policies that created the conditions that led to the strike. After recent reports that several prisoners were severely beaten in prisons where strikes took place, the ACLU and our partners are also investigating whether these beatings were punishments inflicted on striking prisoners by corrections officers.
Georgia is one of the largest incarcerators in the country, with one in 13 Georgians under correctional control. Unfortunately, while Georgia's situation is extreme, it is not unique. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world (yes, even China). There are approximately 1.6 million people in prisons in this country. These numbers are not a reflection of a rise in crime or population growth, but rather the result of more and more state and federal policies that incarcerate more people and keep them locked up longer. Corrections costs now account for one of every 15 state general fund discretionary dollars, and corrections spending is the second fastest-growing category of state budgets. Georgia is projected to spend $1.1 billion on corrections cost in the year 2011 alone.
Statistics like these make it impossible to ignore that the incarceration crisis is busting state budgets, and the Georgia prisoner strike illuminates the human cost just as clearly. It might seem easy to forget about the millions of people behind bars in our country, but the prisoners in Georgia have reminded us that this isn't a viable option. Nationwide, 77 percent of state prisoners are eventually released — does it really make sense to subject these individuals to inhumane treatment while incarcerated, leading them to become a greater threat to public safety upon their release than when they were incarcerated initially? Many of these individuals spend years in prison for minor offenses such as possessing minute quantities of marijuana, stealing $500 or driving without a license. Why not give these prisoners access to educational programs in order to prepare them for re-entry into society, thereby decreasing the chances that they offend in the future?
Recognizing that our country's incarceration levels have reached epidemic proportions and devastated communities of color, the ACLU has made the fight against mass incarceration a top organizational priority. The national ACLU and its offices in states around the country have been actively engaged in criminal justice reform for many years, but for the first time, with our Initiative to Combat Mass Incarceration, the ACLU is working to strategically coordinate this work to chip away at unjust and ineffective policies that have led to the U.S. becoming the largest jailor in the world.
Our nation's current criminal justice system is grounded in fear, racism and the irrational notion that locking people up is the only way to increase public safety. The ACLU advocates for a system that increases public safety by treating prisoners humanely, seeking proven and cost-effective solutions to incarceration and actually rehabilitating prisoners so they are equipped to re-enter society at the end of their sentences.
In a few weeks, we will be launching our campaign's new Web page to keep you informed of our efforts to advocate for smarter criminal justice policy in Georgia and other states. There are few greater threats to civil liberties than a criminal justice system that today deprives more Americans of their liberty than ever before — unfairly and unnecessarily, with no benefit to public safety — because of our addiction to incarceration.