Hunger Strike In Protest of Conditions in Georgia Prisons’ Tier Program

A hunger strike has been going on in Georgia State Prison in Reidsville since February 26. Prisoners are protesting inhumane conditions, including beatings and lack of access to sufficient food, sanitation, exercise, and an effective grievance process. Their demand is an end to the state’s Tier Program, a 2013 initiative that created three increasingly restrictive levels of “Administrative Segregation” to deal with prisoners who are deemed a significant threat to security.

Kelvin J Stevenson, a hunger striking prisoner, has been held in solitary confinement for years. After Kelvin participated in the hunger strike in 2010, he was beaten with a claw hammer by guards, for which he pursued a lawsuit. He was subsequently placed in the “Special Management Unit”, a facility outside of the prison in Jackson, GA, which constitutes the third and most restrictive level of the Tier program. He has now been moved to Tier II. Kelvin calls the program “prolonged solitary confinement” and says “the objective is to destroy the mental, spiritual, and physical being” of those housed in it. He argues that the harshness of the conditions amounts to torture.

Kelvin writes, “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.” Travis King, also housed in Tier II, says, “We have to live in a two man cell where we have no power or control of our lights or toilets. We have to eat and sleep with our waste in our toilets and our toilets are only flushed at the floor officer’s choosing.”

Prisoners have very little access to the outside. Travis writes, “ Our reck or yard is almost none existing”. Kelvin says, “If it is shower day there will be no outside exercise period,” and he is currently getting no yard time at all. Shawn says that he is allowed two hours of yard time a week–the rest of the time he spends “on lock down”: locked in his cell. Prisoners are assigned to these conditions for a year or more at a time.

Food rations are also insufficient. Kelvin says prisoners “live 24 hours a day receiving half portion food trays, thus deliberately malnourishing the prisoners into submission.” He asserts, “When you look at the prisoners housed here, you can clearly see that all are malnourished!” Another prisoner on Tier II, “Shawn” who asked that his real name not be used, says that he heard Warden Robert Toole tell the prisoners that he was going to help them lose weight (in reference to underfeeding the Tier prisoners). Shawn says that he has seen drastic weight loss in people who enter the Tier Program, such as one man who had weighed about 200 pounds and dropped 70 pounds after being placed on the program. He says he heard a guard say he was glad prisoners were losing so much weight because they would be easier to beat in a fight.

Violence is another serious problem. LaDarius Colbert, housed in the prison’s population and working to support the hunger strike, writes, “Recently one of my brothers was beaten by the Cert [Corrections Emergency Response Team]”. Shawn says that guards stand by and do not interfere when a prisoner attacks another. For example he says they are afraid to intervene when a prisoner is “swirled”–beaten by another prisoner while he is in handcuffs–and Shawn has been swirled himself.

Another complaint is lack of access to an effective grievance process. Kelvin writes that when people file grievances, staff “make sure that they are not processed in order to keep the prison abuses covered up.” Prisoners say that filing grievances draws retaliation from the staff because administrators want “to instill fear in prisoners who would challenge this program”. Kelvin says his room was ransacked and his property seized as backlash for filing grievances. He also says, “Any prisoner that files grievances to complain about the denial of outside exercise periods, cell sanitation, law library access, telephone and visitation access to family, the mice and spider infestation, are targeted by G.D.C. administrators and subjected to assaults by C.E.R.T.”

According to the operating procedures, placement on the Tier Program is supposed to be reserved for prisoners with severe infractions like leadership in riots or trafficking in contraband. However Kelvin writes, “Any prisoner who is apart 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.” Also, prisoners repeatedly cite instances of placement being used as a punishment. Kelvin says, “According to G.D.C. S.O.P. #IIB09-0003 a prisoner must be sanctioned to this program thru the prison’s disciplinary procedure in order that he is given some form of due process. Yet the majority of prisoners placed on this program have no disciplinary report in their institutional files that sanctions such a placement.” Travis 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.”

Conditions in the Tier Program are so notorious, Kelvin and Ladarius report that one man recently committed suicide when he was about to be placed in the program. They say that death followed on the heels of another suicide earlier this year, and Kelvin knows of at least two suicide attempts in addition.

Hunger strikers are demanding an end to the Tier Program. Kelvin writes, “I would like to see this program abolished and education, vocation, on job training programs become a top priority” because they “would prepare prisoners to take control of their lives and their future.” LaDarius is working to start a program called “Peace” which he hopes to be allowed to teach, to educate prisoners from different groups about “the senselessness in their nihilistic turf wars.”

To shed light on the conditions, Kelvin wants “an investigator from the U.S. Dept. of Justice to come and investigate and talk to me and all prisoners housed in this program.” He also encourages people “to contact their state representatives, their congressmen or congresswomen, the U.S. Dept. of Justice [human rights division] and impress upon them that this program and the effects of these torture chambers are unacceptable and must be ended.”