Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"If they want to get paid, they shouldn't commit crimes."

It seems like common sense. But somehow, state Senator Johnny Grant (R-Milledgeville) has created a stir over statements he made concerning a strike by inmates in several state prisons over conditions in the state prisons and the state's practice of not paying prisoners for their labor.

Commenting in his role as Senate State Institutions and Properties Chair, Grant told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he's not about to change the state's practice of not paying the majority of prisoners who provide labor to Georgia counties and municipalities and who toil away in the Correctional Industries program.
"If they want to get paid, they shouldn't commit crimes," said state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, chairman of the Senate Institutions and Property Committee, which oversees prisons.

Besides, he said, "If we started paying inmates, we'd also start charging them for room and board, as well. They ought to be careful what they ask for."

Georgia is no stranger to trouble in its penal system. Prison Historian Larry R. Findlay Sr. writes in "History of the Georgia Prison System" that Georgia's Department of Corrections has often been a venue for moral questions about the treatment of prisoners.

Governor John Milledge first lobbied the General Assembly to establish a penitentiary system "to soften the penal code in use at that time,"which drew heavily form the English system of penal law wherein "branding, pillory, and stocks, in addition to imprisonment and execution were used."

By 1820, the state's penitentiary system was in debt. The General Assembly abolished the system eleven years later in 1831, re-instating the punitive practices of the past and returning many prisoners to the counties they where they were convicted. But the state couldn't abdicate its responsibilities for long and the legislature re-established it the penitentiary system by the next year.

In 1866 the General Assembly laid the infrastructure to take its prison system from a money pit to a money maker.
In December 1866, the legislature passed an Act to regulate the management of the penitentiary and to provide for the inferior courts of each county to hire out offenders to contractors engaged in such repair work [for the penitentiary, itself, at the time]. No lease was to be made which did not relive the state of all expenses during the term of the lease, and no lease was to be made longer than five years. This is the Act that led to the Georgia chain gang.

By operating the Convict Lease System,in which male and female prisoners were leased to individuals or companies for hard labor details such as railroad construction, Georgia's Penitentiary emptied its prison buildings and began turning a profit.

As you can imagine, its hard to keep the state government from going hog wild with any program that it is making money on. Findlay writes that by 1870, there were no more convicts in the penitentiaries and the state discharged all corrections employees the next year. Six years later, the program had become so engrained into the system that the state was able to lease all its prisoners "to three companies for twenty years for a total of $500,000."

Now this is a privatization plan that many legislators will wish they had access to as budget negotiations begin this session.

But public opinion was turning against the Convict Lease System, and Findlay describes 1890 as the beginning of a decade marked by "public outcries over brutalities suffered by the convicts under the lease program." Newspapers including the Macon Telegraph, Atlanta Georgian and the Columbus Enquirer-Sun rallied the people against the system of leasing convicts to private companies.

The legislature ended the Convict Lease System in 1908 by passing an act "to provide that misdemeanor convicts could work on public roads under state or county supervision. In no case, were they to be placed under the control of private parties. Female convicts were sentenced to the female prison instead of the chain gang."

More than 100 years later, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and New York Times are reporting a complex network of prisoner groups that are "not known to cooperate," organized via contraband cell phones, word-of-mouth and the help of family members and prisoner advocates.

These prisoners' story is an interesting study in networking and promotion. No one can doubt that they undertook this large task of organizing these disparate factions because they are upset about the conditions in the prisons. Those same kind of conditions that led the federal government to intervene in the administration of Georgia State Prison in Reidsville in the 1970s and '80s when 52 prisoners at filed a class action lawsuit over the issues of overcrowding, racial segregation, violence and intimidation on behalf of the guards

No one can doubt that the effects of the economic recession have been particularly harsh on those Georgians who have been shoe-horned into a smaller and smaller DOC footprint.

The Times reports that these strikes began in earnest when the department banned cigarettes earlier this year. And the organizers say they will be ready to unleash another wave of protests, which may not be as peaceful, if their demands are not met.

I hope that prison and state officials will work diligently to find some kind of compromise with the men and women in their charge. Georgia's prison guards' jobs are hard enough, we don't need to be putting them directly into a hostile situation after we've asked them to sacrifice so much already. Access to better healthcare and more educational opportunities are something that can expand jobs for Georgians who don't need to go to jail to find a job. But I don't believe there are many Georgians who are going to get behind a plan to begin paying inmates.

We've come a long way since the beginning of the penitentiary system in Milledgeville, but we haven't come that far yet.

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