Supporters of the Georgia prison strikers rally in front of the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland.
Bay Area community activists rallied Friday in front of an Oakland jail to show solidarity for Georgia prisoners who had organized an unprecedented strike in at least seven of their state's penitentiaries.
A diverse group of about 40 gathered at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland, including children and the elderly. Protesters exchanged personal statements of unity with the striking prisoners and their desires to reform the criminal justice system. They then marched to Oakland City Hall, where a scheduled line-up of speeches and performances was cancelled due to rain.
Gerald Smith, an electrician and long-time Oakland resident, said he resonated with the cause because he’s had incarcerated family members and knows the seriousness of prison conditions. Smith said even prisoners need dignity and a living wage.
“When you imprison and pay 25 cents an hour for the same work that people were getting $20 an hour for, that’s called super exploitation,” Smith said.
Georgia prisoners are not paid at all for their work, with very few exceptions.
The Georgia prison strikers have nine demands, including receiving a living wage for their work, as well as educational, vocational and self-improvement opportunities and nutritional meals. Prisoners began to organize themselves after a tobacco ban took effect in September. The New York Times reported the prisoners used contraband cell phones, many provided by prison guards at exorbitant prices, to communicate and organize themselves.
While Georgia prison officials said they locked-down four prisons after learning of the planned strikes, prisoners said they locked themselves down, refusing to leave their cells and work, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Timothy Killings said he felt inspired to participate at the local event because the Georgian strike reminded him of California’s system and how prisoners all across the country are treated.
“The Georgia prison strike is something that we should pick up here on the Bay Area,” Killings said. “It’s like modern-day slavery to me.”
California inmates make between 30 cents and 95 cents per hour, according to the California Prison Industry Authority, or CALPIA. Additionally, 20 percent of their net wages are mandatorily deducted to a fund that benefits victims of crimes. CALPIA employs 5,900 inmates in 22 state prisons offering goods and services ranging from license plates and office furniture to printing services and coffee.
Activists say they plan to keep organizing the local community through a larger campaign, which will include tactics such as boycotting companies that contract prison services, as well as planning public demonstrations and educational outreach.
Anastasia Gomes, a graduate student at San Francisco State University, said Californians should care about the Georgia strike because it is directly related to the lack of economic opportunities.
“There would be a lot more jobs with pay if prison labor wasn’t being used to undercut the wages of this kind of labor.”
Prison advocate and former Black Panther Party chair Elaine Brown was scheduled to give an update of the Georgia situation at Oakland City Hall, but cancelled due to the weather. Organizers said they plan to hold a meeting with her next week to debrief and to plan future actions.