Originally published in the Kenyon Review, December 26, 2010


A little while ago, I blogged about the prison industrial complex, about imagining a world without prisons, and about the importance of engaging in such creative acts.

Earlier this month, inmates from several prisons (six to ten, according to different sources) across Georgia staged a multi-day strike, refusing to come out of their cells. The prisoners were striking for a living wage, as well as protesting poor living conditions and lack of decent health care.

This strike -- the largest prison work strike in U.S. history -- was coordinated by cell phone text messages and unified across usually divisive racial and gang factions. It received very little mainstream media coverage.

According to Elaine Brown, prison justice advocate who has been championing for the prisoners, the idea of the strike was almost a poetic epiphany. A quote from her interview at Democracy Now!:

At some point, a number of them just decided, “Well, we just shouldn’t work.” And it just became a prairie fire. ... I cannot explain how they suddenly understood how to be unified, decided, “Yeah, we’re not working, and we’re down with this, and we’re not going to get up, and we’re going to stay united.”

And they did, staying in their cells even as the prison authorities responded by beating up prisoners, shutting off hot water, and turning off the heat. As the strike continued, the Georgia Department of Corrections tried to spin the story by saying that they had ordered a lockdown to preempt the strike. But The New York Times quoted a 20-year-old inmate at Hays State Prison in Trion who insisted: “We locked ourselves down.”

To me, one of the triumphs of this strike is that it insists on the humanity of the prisoners. The men in the Georgia prisons collectively decided how and when to stage this coordinated action. They did it through smart organizing and strategic use of the limited access they had to technology.

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. How -- in the “land of liberty” -- did this come to be? In part, the U.S. public has allowed such an enormous growth in the prison population because we have been conditioned to think of prisoners as less than human. Mark Anthony Neal, in an article that investigates the lack of media coverage of the Georgia prison strike, makes note of the following:

In the big business of American prisons, criminalizing “blackness” seems a critical component, with television shows like Oz and The Wire (despite all its complexity) and social panics over “sagging” helping to desensitize the American public to the realities of prison life…. In a society that has little regard for inmates or their rehabilitation, and a fundamental belief that that prisons only stockpile Black and Latino men who are innately criminal, we can expect little empathy for the fact that most prisoners, even if they are not living [in] inhumane conditions, are being economically exploited in ways that are apropos to chattel slavery.

So here I turn again to the work of the imagination, the work of re-imagining, how poetry and stories and human voices can reconnect us to the fact that every single person in jail is just that: a person. I’ve been visiting the Thousand Kites website, listening to the holiday edition of “Calls from Home”: messages that people on the outside leave for prisoners.

I’ve also been checking out the poetry written people in the prison systems.

Over the summer, I had the chance to work on a poem started by Jevon Jackson, who is currently in Columbia Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. “The Gathering (A Global Collaboration)” includes contributions from inmates that he met as he was shuffled through multiple institutions, as well as from people not incarcerated. What joins us together is our identity as poets. Each writer begins their section with the line “Poet, bless this name,” and also includes the line “From where have you came” (which I love for the sense of continual arrival).

The collective poem is thus grounded in name and place: whether literally stated or not, name and place become markers of each poet’s identity. Yet through the act of writing a collaborative poem, we also assert our collective humanity. As Jackson writes in the first section of the poem:

I was part of You,
We were contour feathers availed together,
You had the same scars that I had,
We ate the same stars and weather,
We coughed quasars and thought similar planets–

We become vast, then, we become so much more than ourselves.

This holiday season, rooted in generosity and “goodwill towards men,” seems a good time to be thinking about the people our society has locked away and largely forgotten.

Towards action: At Change.org, you can sign a petition to the commissioner of the Georgia Department Of Corrections supporting the prisoners who went on strike. 

©  2019 Tamiko Beyer