Part 2 of 3: Slave Revolts, Convict Leasing, and Prison Uprisings (part 1 available here)
Dividing the Working Class: The Racial Caste System
The United States, and the South in particular, have a long and painful history of holding people captive and forcing them to work against their will or for very little pay. The roots of white supremacy, and the very concepts of race and “whiteness,” are inextricably tied to the expansion of European colonialism. During the transition from feudalism to a capitalist society, white supremacy helped cement the economic and social dominance of the ruling class over working people of European, African, and indigenous descent.
The state’s effort to divide poor and working-class white settler-colonialists (or those forced into exile and indentured servitude, as was the case for many in Georgia) against people of color pre-dates the founding of the United States as a nation by at least a century. Many early settlers in the South were Protestants, who had earned a notorious reputation for slaughtering Irish Catholics in Ulster, at the behest of the Crown. They refined those skills and carried them over to the new British colonies. There they slaughtered the indigenous population in the very same manner, and continued to do so for the next two centuries. The practice of “scalping,” generally associated with American Indians, actually originated with the Scots-Irish in Ireland and was brought across the Atlantic, where local colonial governments awarded bounties for Indian scalps or other proof they’d been killed.
Black and white settlers in Virginia fighting in Bacon’s Rebellion. Settlers fought against the ruling class, but also against indigenous Americans, proving social relations even at that time were extremely complicated.
As wealthy English planters gathered more land and resources along the coast they pushed the Scots-Irish and German settlers farther west. These settlers constantly found themselves on the front lines of American expansion, where they served as the state’s foot soldiers in clashes with the indigenous population (white settler-colonialists very often joined indigenous tribes out of either desperation or disgust at their fellow settlers). While many of the original slaveholders (and the “Founding Fathers”) in the colonial and post-revolution eras were wealthy Englishmen, after the 1800s, non-English white settlers and their descendants came to own slaves, accumulate large parcels of land, and gain political power.
Slave revolts and anti-Indian propaganda kept white settlers in a state of constant fear. The ruling class exploited this tension to drive a wedge between social groups, placing them at odds with one another to serve their own interests. Bacon’s Rebellion (1676, Virginia), during which white former indentured servants and black slaves joined forces against the colonial ruling class, was a major turning point in class relations in the colonies. Subsequent uprisings in nearby states led to a hardening of the nebulous racial caste system in the English colonies (Bacon’s rebellion was also directed toward indigenous Americans, demonstrating analyses of class struggles are always difficult and subject to a variety of social factors). These divisions have persisted into the modern era and the state still exploits them to divide the white working class from working people of color.
Slave Revolts in the South
US history is replete with slave revolts that remain mostly unmentioned in school history lessons. It’s not uncommon to hear students question: “Why didn’t the slaves just rebel if things were so bad?” or apologists for slavery pose similar questions. Those questions are difficult to answer given the dominant historical narrative; one that focuses on “great (mostly-white) men” rather than working people and material conditions on the ground.
The largest slave revolt in what is now the United States occurred in Florida. Twenty slaves, under the leadership of a man named Jemmy, gathered at the Stono River and raided a warehouse in 1739. They executed the white owners, placed their heads on display, burned homes and warehouses, and killed European settlers on their march toward St. Augustine, where they hoped to find freedom. About 100 rebel slaves joined the force, which very quickly found itself embroiled in armed struggle with the English. Many of the rebel slaves were executed, but some are thought to have escaped to freedom. The following year, 50 slaves were executed in the aftermath of a similar uprising in South Carolina.
The largest slave revolt on US-controlled soil occurred in southern Louisiana in 1811. Charles Deslondes, a mulatto slave driver who drew inspiration from the Haitian Revolution (a massive slave revolt that liberated the colony from French domination), led a group of 25 slaves to revolt on a sugar plantation. They attacked the owner (who escaped) and his family, seized guns, ammunition, and supplies from a nearby militia warehouse, and marched toward New Orleans. Eventually the small army numbered between 120-300 rebel slaves and faced armed resistance from US Army and militia forces 20 miles short of New Orleans. Twenty rebel slaves were killed in combat, 50 were imprisoned, and the rest escaped by fleeing deep into the swamps. Fifty more were captured later. In all, about 100 survivors of the battle were summarily executed.
The slave revolt led by Nat Turner and the surrounding propaganda was used to strike fear into the white working class and justify harsher living conditions for black slaves. It also served as a catalyst for the Civil War and the end to chattel slavery in the South.
The most infamous slave revolt in the United States was led by Nat Turner in Virginia during the summer of 1831. Turner gathered a small army of fellow slaves, killed the plantation owner, and raided nearby homes for money and supplies. They indiscriminately killed many of the white residents, who they saw as enemy combatants, along the way. Their force eventually numbered between 50-60 rebel slaves, including 5 free black men. The rebellion was put down by the state militia, but Turner escaped capture for over 2 months. Turner and his rebel force slaughtered 55 whites in the rebellion. Turner and 55 accomplices were executed shortly after. Following the uprising, angry white settlers murdered 200 more black locals (who had no involvement in the slave revolt) without consequence.
The US Civil War in Appalachia
The immediate aftermath of Nat Turner’s slave revolt was a heightened sense of fear among white settlers and harsher conditions for black slaves in the South (at the time there were also still slaves in the North, although trading or “buying” new slaves was prohibited). The uprising is seen as a precipitating event of the US Civil War, which led to the formal end of chattel slavery. John Brown’s 1859 raid on the the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry is viewed as one of the primary and immediate catalysts for the US Civil War.
John Brown, a devout Christian and outspoken abolitionist, with a handful of accomplices, planned to establish a base of operations in the Blue Ridge Mountains of what was then Virginia (West Virginia would split from Virginia just two years later over the issue of secession from the Union). From there they hoped to assist escaped slaves, attack slaveholders, and push forward the abolitionist cause to end slavery through armed insurrection.
On the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown and 21 men (some of them former slaves), swept into Harpers Ferry and seized the federal armory, arsenal, and a nearby weapons supply facility. They held several prominent citizens hostage in the armory. Brown’s plan was centered around the idea that, with their masters now captured, local slaves would join his ranks and take up arms against slaveholders. His plan failed to come to fruition. The local militia surrounded the armory and trapped Brown’s small group inside. Just a few days later federal troops, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, swept into Harpers Ferry and put and end to the short-lived insurrection.
Ten of Brown’s men (including both his sons) were killed in the battle, seven were captured, and five escaped. Those who were captured were quickly tried in Charlestown and executed. John Brown’s final words would prove grimly prophetic: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.” The US Civil War began less than 18 months later. Many would argue that those sins have yet to be washed away, and even that many more have since been accumulated.
While much of the armed conflict during the Civil War stayed away from Southern Appalachia (with notable exceptions, such as battles in Chattanooga and Northwest Georgia toward the end of the war), war time was far from peaceful for residents of the mountains. More than in other parts of the South, residents of Appalachia were sharply divided on the issue of secession and being forced to fight in a war to protect the economic interests of the ruling planter class, who held most of the slaves in the South. Residents of Eastern Tennessee and parts of Western North Carolina were particularly supportive of the Union, sometimes constituting a majority and travelling north to join the Union Army. Some pockets of North Georgia, especially in Lumpkin and Fannin Counties, supported the Union and served as refuge for those looking to avoid being drafted into the Confederate army.
There were notable armed skirmishes between residents in the region. The Shelton Laurel Massacre, made famous in the Ron Rash novel The World Made Straight, saw a North Carolina military regiment execute thirteen unarmed Union sympathizers, including a 64-year-old man and a twelve-year-old boy. Such atrocities seem to have been much more common than regular (or “traditional”) military encounters in the area. Governor Zebulon Vance wrote in his journal at the time: “The warfare between scattering bodies of irregular troops is conducted on both sides without any regard whatever to the rules of civilized war or the dictates of humanity.” (We’ll leave the question of how a member of the local ruling class might consider any form of war “civilized” for another time)
John Brown has been dismissed as a “lunatic” for his positions and the actions he took to end slavery by violent insurrection, but considering the planning he and other put into planning the raid on Hapers Ferry, he was obviously well aware of what the consequences his actions (regardless of the result) would have in Virginia and across the nation. His last words, 18 months prior to the Civil War, would prove frighteningly prophetic.
Similar scenes were recorded in West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and East Tennessee. In Lumpkin County, Georgia, a local merchant summarily executed a group of draft dodgers and deserters. The names and number of those killed is not recorded. Records of these and other incidents are either difficult to locate or contain little useful information. Many of these brutal events are only just now making their way into the historical narrative of the US Civil War.
When current residents of Southern Appalachia boldly fly the Confederate Battle Flag, claiming it as a part of their “Southern” heritage, they are likely uninformed or misinformed about actual history in the area. Their arguments in support of the flag as a symbol of local pride are dubious at best, considering strong support for the Union and contempt of the Confederate government by their ancestors.
Slavery in the mountain region was much less popular than in the Deep South. When slaves were used it was mostly after the farming season had ended when slaves were leased out in Georgia or North Carolina to extract gold and precious gems from local mines. Slaves were sometimes sold on the courthouse steps of mountain towns like Dahlonega. Opposition to secession and support for the Union in the region weren’t strictly based on a moral opposition to slavery. They were more likely due to a difference in material conditions between family-owned farms in the mountains and sprawling plantations owned by wealthy planters further south. Residents of the mountains also didn’t take kindly to being taxed to support a war in which they had no personal interest. The mountains did serve as a hideaway for escaped slaves during the war and West Virginia carved itself from the Confederate state of Virginia due, at least in part, to local opposition to slavery.
New Forms of Slavery Emerge from the Old
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution formally ended chattel slavery and indentured servitude in the country, but made an important exception for another form of slavery. The amendment reads, in part:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”
This exception would prove crucial in the re-emergence of slavery in other forms after emancipation.
In the wake of the Civil War, the planter class was left without the steady pool of free labor on which they relied. There was also a large population of recently freed slaves who owned no land and could find no employment to feed themselves or support their families. Following his infamous “March to the Sea,” which left a line of indiscriminate destruction the Georgia (ruining conditions for both poor/working-class and wealthy residents), General William T. Sherman was pressured into ordering large parcels of land in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida be redistributed. His plan would provide 40 acres of property to each former slave. This order was met with fierce resistance by the planter class (the “old” ruling class) and was quickly rescinded by Andrew Johnson, president Abraham Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer of the South. Most of the land was quickly returned to the previous owners, while the struggle for economic and social dominance by the planter class and the Northern ruling class (imposed by federal troops during Reconstruction) continued.
During the war many slaves had already freed themselves on their own terms, long before the Emancipation Proclamation (which, interestingly enough, freed no slaves, since Lincoln had no political authority in the South and the Proclamation did not cover the few remaining slaves in the North). Land transfers between the planter class and freed slave were less than peaceful. In 1868-69, with rice field workers in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia striking for better conditions, former slaves in the Ogeechee Neck (12 miles south of Savannah) mounted an insurrection and seized land for themselves. They expropriated the same land their ancestors had been forced to transform into rice fields, took up arms, and distributed manifestos in an effort to spread the insurrection. The Ogeechee rebels had a clear goal of overthrowing the ruling planter class and distributing the land among workers. They formed into regular military companies with muskets and bayonets seized from Savannah. The rebellion was put down only after civil and federal military authorities intervened. Of the rebel forces, 143 were arrested, 116 were tried, and five were convicted of “insurrection, robbery by intimidation, and armed assault with intent to murder.” They were sentenced to 5 years hard labor, but later pardoned by Republican Governor Rufus Bullock.
Disobedient prisoners in the chain gang system were often tied to posts in awkward and uncomfortable positions for the entire work day. They were left to suffer, without food or drink, in the heat and humidity of the Deep South.
During Reconstruction black residents of the South made modest gains, many starting small farms of their own and even getting elected to local and national political office. Still, it was obvious that a white ruling class, either dictated by the federal government or local plantation owners, still maintained control over the region. Many former slaves went back to work on the same plantations where they’d been enslaved for meager wages.
After the period of Reconstruction ended and federal troops left, control of the South returned to the old ruling class. Most states quickly passed laws that essentially criminalized having black skin. Black southerners would be arrested and detained for vagrancy, mischief, making insulting gestures, and other vague or arbitrary offenses known as “Black Codes.” Those convicted were sentenced to jail and prison terms and hit with fines they could never pay. To work off those fines the state leased prisoners out to local plantation owners, effectively creating a new form of institutional, and completely legal, slavery. Disobedient prisoners were sometimes tied to posts in awkward and uncomfortable positions all day, roasting in the Southern heat and without food or water. Laws like these laid the foundation for the “Jim Crow” caste system in the South. The “convict leasing” system has had a lasting impact on the US justice system and modern mass incarceration.
A chain gang in the US South (undated). “Black Codes” were used across the South to criminalize freed slaves and force them back into work for their former slaveholders. Chain gangs consisted of mostly black, and a few poor white, prison workers. Georgia was the last state to do away with chain gangs in 1955.
Southern states eventually moved away from convict leasing and developed convict labor camps. Two of the most notorious prison farms were at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) and the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm). This period gave rise to the infamous “chain gangs,” where prisoners were forced at gunpoint to perform physically demanding labor, either for the benefit of the state (building roads, clearing brush, etc.) or the amusement of prison staff. Georgia was the last state to do away with chain gangs in 1955. Inmates in the state penal system still refer to prison as the “chain gang.”
While the disappearance of chain gangs made grueling prison labor and the horrible living conditions less visible to the public, state and federal prisoners in the US are still coerced into work for fear of having basic privileges like visitation, commissary, or phone calls revoked. In most states and in the federal system prison workers are paid a nominal wage (always well below the federal minimum wage). In Georgia and Texas inmate workers receive no pay for their labor. Although prison workers aren’t generally considered part of the “working class,” some unions and prison abolition groups are pressing for union recognition and better living conditions for prison workers. Efforts to organize from the inside are almost always met with brutal repression from prison administration.
Prison Organizing and Uprisings in the South
Most of the well-known prison uprisings occurred at men’s prisons, where names like Folsom, Attica, and Lucasville still strike fear into the hearts of corrections officers and state officials across the country. Women, however — even in Appalachia and the South — have their own history of agitation and rebellion behind bars.
In 1974, Carol Crooks, a woman prisoner at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York won a legal battle against the state department of corrections. She was beaten by five male guards in retaliation. The beating led her fellow inmates to take some of the guards hostage in an effort to take control of the prison. While not in the South or Appalachia, per se, this incident serves as a reminder for those who minimize the role of women in resisting incarceration or living conditions in US prisons.
A year later, in 1975, women at the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW) protested their miserable conditions by staging a work stoppage and sit-down protest in the prison laundry. They demanded adequate medical care, better counseling services, and a shutdown of the prison laundry facility. Prison guards responded by attempting to corral the women, who had remained peaceful, into the prison gymnasium where they were beaten. The women fought back with whatever means were at their disposal, using volleyball equipment, chunks of concrete, and wooden poles to defend themselves. The state eventually sent in over 100 guards from other prisons to end the uprising. The prison resumed normal operations four days later, but the prison laundry was closed shortly after the incident.
Male prisoners in Appalachia and the South have a long history of rebellion. On New Years day 1986, twenty male prisoners at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia took guards hostage in the dining hall. This led to a standoff that lasted more than two days. They took 16 prison guards hostage and killed three inmates thought to be informants. Like participants of other prison rebellions across the country, the incident was sparked by a demand for clean and humane living conditions, adequate food, and basic medical care.
In December 2010, inmates in several Georgia prisons coordinated a peaceful work stoppage and hunger strike. At least six major prisons were affected (there are over 100 correctional facilities, not including county jails, in the state). Workers refused meals and failed to report for work details. Since most of the work the makes Georgia prisons operate is made possible by unpaid inmate labor, the work stoppage had an immediate impact. The inmates were demanding, as usual, clean living conditions, educational opportunities, adequate and nutritional food, pay for work, and basic medical care. Their demands were met with force by prison officials. The heating and air system, electricity, and all water to the prisoners’ living quarters were shut off. Most of the prisoners quickly gave in and went back to work within a few days. Those who did not were isolated from the general population and punished.
Women are the fastest-growing prison population in the United States. Groups like the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and the Incarcerated Workers of the World, are trying to gain union recognition for prison workers. Georgia and Texas force many state prisoners to work with no pay.
The strikes were coordinated with help from outside supporters and mobile phone contact between prisoners at different facilities. The Georgia Department of Corrections singled out 37 alleged organizers of the strike and placed them in close confinement. Guards retaliated against the prisoners with physical brutality and extreme isolation. An incident during which one of the prisoners, Kelvin Stevenson, was strapped down and beaten with a hammer was captured on film. Georgia prison officials have a long-standing practice of beating unruly inmates and placing them in confinement — where outsiders can’t view the damage — until they heal up or become docile and obedient.
Many of those singled out as organizers of the 2010 strike were denied visits when family members spoke to the media. Several were transferred to the state’s new “supermax” facility in Jackson, Georgia. Some of the prisoners staged additional hunger strikes in 2011 and 2012, with help from outside groups like The Ordinary People Society, Occupy Atlanta, and the IWW General Defense Committee. Four of the original strikers, now under close security at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, staged another hunger strike in 2015. Their only demand was that their security level be reconsidered, per state policy.
These strikes have never been acknowledged by state officials. The Georgia Department of Corrections has frequently provided false or misleading information about the strikes to local media. Outside groups like the Atlanta Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) continue to work with prisoners for union recognition, pay for the work they do, and improved living conditions for all Georgia prisoners. A wave of prison hunger strikes and work stoppages, one that included 30,000 California prisoners, swept across the country between 2011 and 2014.
The Georgia prison strikes inspired the creation of a group called the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), made up of community members, family members of incarcerated people, and inmates at Alabama prisons in 2014. FAM went public with a planned strike at multiple prisons and their effort to form a union for prison workers (called the Incarcerated Workers of the World). They coordinated with the Atlanta IWW and the IWOC for several months leading up to the planned work stoppage. While there was some unrest at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, a widespread strike failed to come to fruition. The organizing campaign included woman prisoners, something the 2010 Georgia strikes lacked. Organizers of the Alabama strike were singled out and faced retaliation (although apparently not as brutal — or obvious — as what happened to Kelvin Stevenson in Georgia). They organized for another strike in early 2015, which was broken up by prison administration and the looming presence of the state’s prison riot squad (Correctional Emergency Response Team [CERT]). In April of 2015 a corrections officer was allegedly attacked by an inmate during breakfast. The result was a brutal crackdown by the CERT team and continued repression of inmates at the facility. The CERT team and prison officials had antagonized prisoners for weeks leading up to the incident.
Alabama and Georgia prisoners continue their efforts to gain better living conditions and union recognition. While their strike campaigns have gained some public attention, without pressure from supporters on the outside their options are limited. Most long-term improvements in the modern prison system have been achieved through full-scale, bloody uprisings like those at Attica and Lucasville. The Free Mississippi Movement is organizing prisoners in Mississippi while the IWOC is currently focused on prisons in Missouri and the Midwest. An Alabama branch of the IWW was born out of the organizing efforts in support of St. Clair prison workers in 2015.
Private Prisons, Immigration Detention, and Mass Incarceration in the South
Since the dawn of the “war on drugs” movement in the early 1980s, through the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1990s, and the introduction of “three strikes” laws and mandatory minimum sentences, the US prison population has grown exponentially. There are approximately 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States on any given day. The US has the highest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The South has the highest rate of incarceration in the US. Six of the top 10 states with the highest incarceration rate are in the South, the top 3 being Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (Texas is 5th, Georgia 7th, Florida 8th). Georgia is also noted for having the highest number of people under correctional supervision (that is, in jail/prison, on parole, or serving probation) at 1 in 13 residents. This has made finding jobs or staying out of the corrections system difficult for a large minority of Southern workers.
Inmates aren’t leased out as they once were, but prison labor in places like Georgia is the means by which the entire correctional infrastructure functions. Inmates grow crops, milk cows, and slaughter meat for consumption by the prison population. They also make the clothing, cleaning supplies, build beds and lockers, perform routine maintenance at existing prisons, and even help construct new prisons. States also loan out state prison inmates to counties, where they are housed to build roads, clean storm damage, sort trash, and so on; jobs that would otherwise employ members of those communities. Some states, like Colorado, have come under fire for producing designer goods like artisanal cheeses, using prison labor. The products are sold in private-sector markets like Whole Foods, while prison workers receive as little at sixty cents a day for their labor and eat food that meets the minimum requirement for survival.
While the prison population seems to have leveled out in recent years, the private prison industry, which commodifies prisoners, is a fast-growing and highly profitable segment of the economy. Companies like Correction Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group are literally making money from keeping jail beds filled. CCA was awarded its first contract at a prison in Hamilton County, Tennessee, near Chattanooga in 1985. Since then private prisons have grown to cover 6% of state prison populations and 16% of the federal prison and immigration detention population.
The fastest growing incarcerated populations are now women and immigration detainees. Many federal immigration detention centers are operated by private prison companies like CCA. At one time, undocumented immigrants were simply returned to their country of origin with only a short stay, if any, at a detention facility near the US-Mexico border. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States there has been a growing tendency to detain undocumented immigrants for longer periods of time. The profit motive for private prison companies has only increased demand to keep beds in prisons and immigration detention facilities filled. Now undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico are shipped to detention facilities in far-away states like Georgia and North Carolina, where they sit for anywhere from several weeks to two years while their cases are resolved. Undocumented immigrants, lacking US citizenship, have limited legal rights under the Constitution and generally receive no professional legal counsel, due process, or the opportunity to appeal decisions.
From 2001-2011 over 3 million people were held in immigration detention facilities at some point. Despite rhetoric from the Right about president Obama being “soft” on immigration, an average of over 30,000 undocumented immigrants are detained at these facilities on any given day and the number continues to rise.
Protesters march to a vigil at the gates of Stewart Detention Center (2015). Stewart is one of many privately-owned immigration detention facilities in the South. It is located in Lumpkin, Georgia, the county seat of Georgia’s most impoverished county.
The child immigration crisis of 2014, during which children and adults from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador fled their homes in fear for their lives or the lives of their children, was caused by US foreign policy. The US government, under Hillary Clinton’s State Department and President Obama, backed a 2009 coup in Honduras that replaced a democratically-elected leftist government with a reactionary (and pro-corporate) right-wing dictator.
The US has a long history of similar interventions in Latin America, including support for right-wing military forces during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, attempts to overthrow the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1970s and 80s, and multiple attempts to overthrow the leftist government of Hugo Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, in Venezuela. In effect, the US is creating a constant supply of undocumented immigrants to fill beds in private prisons through its own failed policies.
Stewart Detention Center, operated by CCA, is one of the more well-established immigration detention facilities in the South. It houses undocumented immigrants from all over the world, but primarily Mexico and Central America. The facility has also been used to house asylum seekers fleeing brutal regimes in Somalia and other war-torn countries (again, where the US has intervened). The facility is located in the most impoverished county in Georgia and houses over 1,700 detainees at a cost of about $55/day — each. Conditions at the facility, even though most detainees have only committed a civil offense, are indistinguishable from most US prisons. In fact, Stewart has been singled out as having some of the worst living conditions of any correctional institution in the state, with poor-quality food and some of the most brutal treatment of detainees by staff (detainees are often unable to communicate needs to staff because of language barriers).
Facilities like Stewart have become targets for immigrant advocacy groups. Volunteers from the metro Atlanta area (about 2-½ hours from Stewart) purchased a house that now serves as a refuge for family members visiting loved ones (often from out-of-state) at Stewart. They are able to spend the night on weekends and see their loved ones, sometimes maybe even for the last time, on Saturdays and Sundays. This is especially important as there are no hotels or motels near the facility. The hospitality house, El Refugio, also serves free meals to visiting family members and volunteers visit detainees at Stewart who otherwise wouldn’t receive visitors because they have no family in the area. In the visitation area it is not uncommon to see children bawling and screaming out of fear that it might be the last time they see a parent.
Students at a rally in Florida (2015) set fire to a Confederate Battle Flag. Many Southerners point to a flag as a part of their heritage, but Civil War-era social relations were extremely complicated. Many residents of North Georgia, Western North Carolina, and East Tennessee sided with the Union, provided refuge for escaped slaves, or housed and employed Confederate draft dodgers.
When poor conditions at these detention facilities persist for long enough, family, immigrant rights advocates, and the detainees themselves often fight back. Each year a group of volunteers from El Refugio, the Georgia Latino-American Human Rights (GLAHR) organization, and other groups from across the country conduct a march through the small town of Lumpkin to a vigil outside the gates of Stewart Detention Center. The march draws hundreds of supporters who sing and chant spiritual songs along the way. The vigil ceremony at the gates often involves some act of civil disobedience, such as crossing an invisible guard line, which inevitably results in some supporters being arrested.
In February 2015, detainees at the Willacy County Correctional Center, 40 miles from the US-Mexico border in Texas, led an uprising. Willacy is an immigration detention facility privately-operated by Management and Training Corporation. Detainees made (by now) familiar complaints about inadequate medical care, cruel treatment by staff, and sexual abuse. Inmates refused to go to breakfast or report to work details and subsequently broke free from their housing units. They converged on the recreation yard and set fire to the facility, leaving it uninhabitable. The rebellion reportedly involved 2,00 inmates and as many as 2,800 detainees were relocated to other facilities. It’s too soon to say whether this uprising will result in any material improvements for detainees, but it did bring national attention to a problem that has received little coverage in the mainstream media.
Rebel Resistance in the South — Looking Forward
Many Southerners, especially conservatives, states’ rights advocates, and white supremacists, boast about the South’s “rebel” heritage, pointing to the US Civil War for inspiration. They fly the Confederate Battle Flag not realizing, or refusing to admit, the flag gained no symbolic meaning until it was adopted by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and Southern segregationists in the 1950’s and 60’s (when it was added to many state flags in Southern states).
The South does, indeed, have a long rebel heritage, but the imagery invoked by those who support the Confederate Battle Flag is far from central to that history. Southern workers have fought, and continue to fight against indentured servitude, slavery, forced drafts into the Confederate army, convict leasing, chain gangs, mass incarceration, and for-profit prison and immigration facilities. The South has a long history of working-class rebellion against the ruling class and white supremacy that crosses artificially-imposed racial and cultural barriers. There is also a distinct, but undeniable, working-class consciousness among workers in the region. In that regard, Southerners have every reason to boast of their true “rebel” spirit as they continue to challenge the institutions of oppression and domination in the region.
Sources and More Information:
- An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
- The Five Greatest Slave Rebellions in the United States, Henry Louis Gates: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/did-african-american-slaves-rebel/
- Nat Turner’s Rebellion, http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/slavery/a/Nat-Turners-Rebellion.htm
- Creation of West Virginia: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/west-virginia-created-secession-southern-confederate-state
- John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2940.html
- John Brown’s last words: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/johnbrown.html
- Appalachia: A History, John Alexander Williams
- Slavery in the American Mountain South, Wilma A. Dunway
- Southern Unionism in the Civil War: http://www.csuchico.edu/inside/current-issue/bigpicture-1.shtml
- The story behind “40 Acres and a Mule”: http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2013/01/40_acres_and_a_mule_promise_to_slaves_the_real_story.3.html
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
- Bedford Hills women’s uprising, 1974: http://www.alternet.org/story/141474/beyond_attica%3A_the_untold_story_of_women%27s_resistance_behind_bars
- NCCIW women’s uprising, 1975: http://newpol.org/content/nor-meekly-serve-her-time-riots-and-resistance-womens-prisons
- Background in 1986 WV Prison Uprising: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/12/have-a-safe-riot/354671/
- Georgia Inmates Stage Historic Strike: http://www.georgiagreenparty.com/blogs/bdixon/GA_InmatesStageHistoricOneDayPrisonStrikeToday
- Georgia Inmates Beaten with Hammers: https://libcom.org/news/georgia-inmates-beaten-hammers-during-2010-prisoners-strike-new-video-released-30082013
- Resistance in Georgia Prisons Continues: http://anarchistnews.org/content/anarchist-resistance-georgia-prisons-continues
- Alabama prison strikes 2014: http://inthesetimes.com/prison-complex/entry/16607/alabama_prisoners
- St. Clair prison strike 2015: http://www.alabamaprisonwatch.org/2015/02/support-strike-at-st-clair-correctional.html
- St. Clair prisoners attacked by riot team 2015: http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2015/04/15_inmates_treated_after_riot.html
- Incarceration rates by state: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/states-prison-rates_n_3667046.html
- Georgians under correctional supervision: http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2009/PSPP1in31factsheetGApdf.pdf
- Prison Labor’s New Frontier: http://fortune.com/2014/06/02/prison-labor-artisanal/
- Private Prisons: Pros and Cons: Cons and Pros, Charles H. Logan
- ACLU Report on Private Prisons: https://www.aclu.org/issues/mass-incarceration/privatization-criminal-justice/private-prisons
- PBS Report on Immigration Detention: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/race-multicultural/lost-in-detention/map-the-u-s-immigration-detention-boom/
- Details on US interventions in Latin America, which are extremely numerous and almost exclusively supportive of right-wing dictators or US puppet regimes, available at the SOA Watch web site: http://soaw.org/
- Stewart Detention Center info: http://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/sites/detentionwatchnetwork.org/files/ExposeClose/Expose-Stewart11-15.pdf
- Information about El Refugio: http://elrefugiostewart.org/about-el-refugio/
- Details of 2014 Stewart Detention Center protest: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2014/11/22/3429000/5-soa-watch-protesters-arrested.html
- Willacy County facility taken over by inmates: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/21/willacy-county-prison-tak_n_6727930.html
- Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, Neal Shirley & Saralee Stafford
- Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=40