At least four prisoners in the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville are on hunger strike. They demand an end to the Tier Program, a system used to grant and withhold privileges from prisoners. To understand why this is significant, here’s some history:
In 2010, thousands of prisoners across Georgia, USA went on strike, refusing to leave their cells or cooperate with the prison in any way. The effort crossed race and gang lines, with normally rival groups working together. They were met with repression and violence, but resistance spilled into more prisons through communication over smuggled phones. It grew into international news.
Unable to contain the situation, prison officials identified the supposed “leaders” of the uprising and transferred them to Jackson State Prison. There they were held under very restrictive conditions – almost no visits, calls, or medical attention.
In 2012, those prisoners in Jackson started a hunger strike in protest of the restrictive conditions. They were fewer than in 2010, but gained attention and ultimately forced prison officials to meet and negotiate with them to improve conditions.
As one might imagine, officials were worried by a prison population that felt it could make demands. So since 2012, they have taken steps to prevent further resistance. Key among these is their use of the Tier Program. It effectively functions as an unaccountable and arbitrary criminal justice system within the prison itself. Prisoners placed on the program are assigned a tier: 1, 2 or 3. The higher the tier, the more restrictive and harsh their conditions are. The prisoner must then obey and cooperate with officials until they decide to move the prisoner to the next lower tier.
Kelvin J. Stevenson, one of the hunger strikers, describes the conditions in Tier 2, “Cells are filthy and infested with insects and mice. Staph and scabies are constantly present and medical staff care less whether we live or die. […] We live 24 hours a day receiving half portion food trays, thus deliberately malnourishing the prisoners into submission. When you look at the prisoners housed here, you can clearly see that all are malnourished!”
Tier 3 is the most restrictive, and effectively amounts to solitary confinement. Kelvin spent time in the Tier 3 Special Management Unit, and calls it torture, intended to “destroy the mental, spiritual, and physical being” of prisoners. Prisoners are known to spend stretches of many months at a time on Tier 3. Recently one man who was soon to be placed on the program committed suicide, and there have been several other attempts just this year.
The Tier Program is ostensibly used to punish those who commit serious violence while in jail, or are involved in organized crime inside. But increasingly, it’s being used to persecute anyone who prison officials fear could promote dissent. Prison officials use the program to punish those they suspect of organizing or sowing discontent. Kelvin, who identifies as an anarchist, writes, “Any prisoner who is a part of an organization with any form of political or religious or cultural background is then arbitrarily validated as a gang member, and this is used to justify his placement in the program.” Hunger striker Travis King writes, “We are kept in the program if we complain. It is of my opinion that I’ll be in this program even longer for this letter but people on the outside must know what we go through behind these walls.”
In 2010, Kelvin was beaten severely with a hammer by guards during the statewide uprising. Five years later, he is risking his health again to highlight the brutally effective system that prisons are using to keep the next spark of rebellion from catching.
Internationally, coordination and solidarity between prisoners is increasing, with illegal phones becoming widespread and activists on the outside circulating information. From Ohio to Athens, it seems more prison resistance is appearing every day. The Reidsville hunger strikers recognize that if these efforts are to spread and grow, systems like the Tier Program must be recognized and destroyed.
Letters and recordings from the hunger strikers can be found at http://atlanta.indymedia.org
They can be written at the following addresses:
Kelvin J. Stevenson #570391
LaDarius Colbert #1000145093
Travis King #1016866
GSP-2164 GA. Hwy 147
Reidsville, GA 30499