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black men prison

You may have heard about the prison strike occurring in Georgia right now.  Inmates in four facilities have come together in an amazing show of solidarity to demand that they be treated like (gasp) human beings, not slaves or animals.  Rather than continuing to fall for the game of divide and conquer that has kept them apart for so long, the whites, blacks, Muslims, Mexicans, and other groups have mobilized forces to fight for something worthwhile.

The guards and wardens of these prisons are nervous.  For the longest time, they were able to convince the inmates to take their aggression out on each other.  Now that the intellectual and spiritual guns are pointed at their overseers, the inmates are gaining access to the liberation that has been denied to them for so very long.  The Georgia prison strike is not just a one-time event; it is a model for success in organizing that can be replicated around the country.

I stand with these men as they fight for what they deserve, while fully understanding that they must pay a debt to society.  They are not asking for anything dramatic, just the basics of what any human being might expect:  an escape from involuntary servitude, adequate healthcare, educational opportunities, the ability to see their families without exorbitant expense and just parole decisions.  They are not asking to be treated like royalty or to even be released without good cause.  They are simply demanding that they be allowed to repay their debt to America and simultaneously create sustainable paths toward contributing to the society in which they live.  These men and women are not garbage to be thrown out and destroyed, but are actually individuals with tremendous productive capacity that remains untapped in a system structured to ruin both good people and bad.

Over the years, I’ve received letters from countless inmates.  Many of these forgotten souls have been abandoned by us all, primarily because they’ve been given the arbitrary label of “criminal.”  While some might feel that it’s OK to treat these individuals as if they are less than human, we must realize that most of us are only a few inches away from being in this system ourselves (consider Wesley Snipes).  The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world, and now that they’ve discovered how profitable incarceration can be, the number will surely go up. You, your child or your loved one may be the next person to get caught up in this system, and so many of us in the black community are directly impacted by the prison industrial complex already.

Additionally, the men and women that come back from prison are our mothers, fathers, wives, sons and husbands.  If they are not in a position to contribute to society by using their idle time to obtain an education,  they risk becoming threats or burdens to the rest of us.  The point is that we must create a way out and a way up for those who want to do better.

President Barack Obama, the man who felt compelled last year to get involved with a porch argument between a professor and a cop, needs to take the time to intervene in the situation in Georgia that is affecting so many human lives.  Given that black men are incarcerated more than any other group in America, I am publicly pleading for the most powerful black man in the history of the world to take a stand for righteousness and make prisons a place for self-improvement, not simply punishment.  If we are going to punish those who’ve committed crimes, we should punish them by forcing them to get an education.  Perhaps we can force them to save the money they earn by working eight hours per day with a living wage.  We need to realize that prisons can become as effective as universities when it comes to strengthening our society and creating productive citizens.  We cannot continue to violate the human rights of other Americans and assume that it’s not going to eventually affect us all.

Everyone needs to support the Georgia prison strike and recognize it’s historical significance.  This opportunity is too great for us to pass up.  Elaine Brown is doing an amazing job representing the rights of prison inmates, but the job of liberating our brothers and sisters belongs to us all.  None of us should be standing on the sidelines.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  For more information, please visit YourBlackWorld.com.

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