By Rhonda Cook
As happens every morning at Smith State Prison, the cell doors were remotely unlocked just before dawn Tuesday.
And, as has happened for the previous five days, that clicking noise was followed with a similar mechanical sound as inmates relocked their cell doors, the echoes ringing through the concrete and metal cell blocks at the close-security prison in Glennville, Ga.
“We are not coming out of our rooms,” said Mike, who gave an interview to ajc.com via cell phone. “Once we lock the doors they [prison guards] leave it at that. We’re in control of this situation as of now.”
The AJC learned some details of what appears to be a carefully orchestrated protest via phone interviews with four inmates at Smith prison, one of the four Georgia facilities currently in a lockdown. The inmates said they acquired the phones, considered contraband by prison officials, from guards and used them to organize the protests.
The inmates did not want their last names published for fear of retaliation from prison officials, but agreed to allow the AJC to verify their prisoner identification numbers, which the paper then cross-checked with the Department of Corrections website.
According to the prisoners and their advocates, inmates are refusing to report to their work assignments that usually involve cleaning or maintaining the prison or nearby government buildings.
Department of Corrections officials dispute the inmates’ version. They say, as a precaution, wardens at four of its 30 prisons — Hays State Prison in Trion; Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe; Telfair State Prison in Helena and Smith State Prison, about an hour’s drive west of Savannah — decided to lock down their institutions before the protest started, and the situation had not changed.
“That’s wrong. We’ve locked ourselves down,” said Mike.
Cell phones — Mike said he bought his from a guard — were key in organizing the protest and for sharing information once it began, especially with text messaging.
Mike forwarded several to the AJC.
“The tactic squad spent the nite at the prison last nite, n they stayn tnite, too. Pass the word and stay on ur toes,” was a text message sent Tuesday.
One sent Monday read, “Glad yall str8. Stay down. Evry1 needs 2 file grievances. We not getting 2500 calories wit these sandwiches, we sposed 2 get 2 hot meals, and da laundry. Da resolution iz lawsuit! Evry1 do it!”
Another inmate, Diego, who is serving a sentence for murder, said only five prisons were participating in the protest but inmates at another were trying to organize.
“The word went out [that] this is a non-violent movement,” according to Diego, who said he paid a guard $350 for a basic pre-paid cell phone. “But the word got out today: ‘If you break this [protest] and go to work, the inmates are going to deal with you. If you go to work, you might as well pack your [stuff] and take it with you because you’re not coming back.’”
Inmates Mike, Diego, Carlos and Tyquan said they had been given only bologna sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner as inmates assigned to the kitchen detail are refusing to work and officers are having to step in.
Diego said the warden passed through his cell block Tuesday morning trying to get inmates to work.
Later officers came into the cells and removed the doors to each inmate’s locker where they store personal items and their purchases from the prison commissary, the inmates said.
That makes it “enticing for inmates to steal” from each other,” Mike said.
The Department of Corrections declined to comment on Tuesday, referring a reporter to previously issued statements.
“The department’s mission of maintaining safe and secure facilities is non-negotiable and will not be jeopardized,” said corrections Commissioner Brian Owens. “The Department will ensure appropriate safety measures are in place before the lockdown is lifted.”
The inmates’ key concerns are that they are not paid for the work they do at the prison. With the exception of very few in a special program, the inmates also are not paid to work at prison factories, which make furniture, clothing, signs and other items that are sold to state or local governmental agencies.
“If they would start paying us, that would reduce crime behind the walls,” Mike said. “Inmates would have the means to get hygiene [items] and food from the commissary.”
The prisoners also take issue with the quality of the food and the lack of fruit and vegetables they are given, and with a perceived shortage of education and job training programs.
Planning the protest began in September shortly after cigarettes were banned.
“That enticed us to want to get together, to stand as one and overlook all differences in race and religion,” Mike said.
A date of Dec. 9 was set, and the information was spread by family members, letters, text messages, cell phone calls and word-of-mouth. The date was set to allow time for prisoners to stockpile food and for weather considerations — heat would make it harder for inmates to keep tempers in check, Mike said.
“It gave everybody time to situate themselves. It gave us time to get food [from the prison commissary]. It gave each individual’s gang time to get together and talk to each individual,” he said.
“December was the best time because it was cool, [and] we had less chance of people losing their temper. If they had done it in summer, it would have been hot, the officers would come to us aggressively and they [inmates] might not have kept their cool.”