SYRACUSE, NY - The largest inmate strike in United States history has taken place in the state of Georgia. Inmates at several prisons across the state have coordinated in an effort to secure basic human rights, including access to education, adequate healthcare, the ability to interact with their families without exorbitant expense, and an escape from cruel and unusual punishment.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and others around the nation are in support of the inmates’ efforts to get access to the things they need. Rev. Jesse Jackson, in an interview with AOL Black Voices, also expressed concerns about the abuses that take place in America’s prisons.
The group is working to increase public awareness of the inmates’ efforts and the retaliation they are experiencing from the guards. Reports are that guards have beaten some of the inmates brutally and even shut off the heat in 30-degree weather. Dr. Watkins says that the inmates have a right to be treated like human beings and that the prison system has roots that link directly to slavery.
“The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery, except for those who’ve been labeled as felons,” says Dr. Watkins, who spoke with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton about the matter this week. “This gives them a convenient loophole around slavery that continues to this very day.”
Dr. Watkins and the Your Black World Coalition are supporting the inmate protest, as well as Elaine Brown, an outspoken advocate for prisoners’ rights. He is also making it clear that he is not against the idea of punishing those who’ve been convicted of crimes. Instead, he argues that the desire to rehabilitate has been lost to the desire to punish and destroy.
“What good does it do to take someone who may already be uneducated, and then force them to remain uneducated by refusing to allow them the opportunity to develop skills while in prison?” says Watkins. “Then, after you let them out, they can’t get a job, vote or even get financial aid to go to school. What do you think is going to happen then? This system is destroying families across America and must be confronted.”
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Dr. Watkins, Rev. Jackson and others argue that fighting for inmates’ rights is a tribute to human decency and is far from presuming that those convicted of crimes should not be punished. Instead, they argue that by ensuring that inmates have access to productive rehabilitation, all Americans serve to benefit in the long-term.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Scholarship in Action Resident for the Institute for Black Public Policy.