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Sep 28, 22

Officials Move to Squash Massive Strike Across Alabama Prisons

Thousands of prisoners have launched a historic work strike across what even the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is admitting is “most major male facilities,” throwing the system into a form of modified lockdown, as prison authorities attempt to break the strike by bringing in prisoners from other facilities. “This is a huge thing, this is a statewide initiative,” said abolitionist organizer, journalist, and podcast co-host of Millennials are Killing Capitalism, Jared Ware, who sat down with It’s Going Down to talk about the strike.

The Strike Begins

The strikes, which kicked off on Monday, took place alongside protests on the other side of the prison walls in Montgomery, Alabama, which delivered a set of the prisoners’ demands, centered around “broad criminal justice reforms and changes to the state’s prison conditions.” Also central to the prisoners’ demands is the issue of parole. As WAFF-48 reported:

More than four years ago, Alabama prisons were overcrowded to the point of being unconstitutional, according to federal court judges. Now, new data shows fewer paroles may be compounding that problem. In just four years, parole denials in Alabama nearly doubled.

That’s according to data from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons & Paroles compiled by the ACLU. That data shows the parole board denied 46% of applications in 2017. In 2021, 84% of parole applications were denied.

This crisis also has a racial dynamic, as the ACLU argued in a recent report:

The rate of parole denial is even more severe for black people in Alabama prisons. The current parole board has granted relief to white candidates at more than double the rate of black candidates. So far in FY 2022, 93 percent of black parole candidates have been denied, while 84 percent of white candidates have been denied. Black candidates saw a grant rate of just 7 percent compared to white candidates at 16 percent. The board has provided no explanation for this disparity.

For years, prisoners have been arguing that incarcerated workers could make changes by bringing the prison system to its knees through coordinated strikes. In the text, Let the Crops Rot in the Field, the Free Alabama Movement wrote:

Just like the Institution of Chattel Slavery, Mass Incarceration is in essence an Economic System which uses human beings as its nuts and bolts. Therefore, our new approach must be Economically based, and must be focused on the factors of production- the people being forced into this slave labor.

If we are to end Mass Incarceration and Prison Slavery, which only those caught up in the slave system can do, then we must Unify nationwide from inside of these prisons and we must stop our labor and LET THE CROPS ROT IN THE FIELD.

“I think if we look at the prisoner movement from 2010, if you look at that phase of prison organizing until now, its one of the more remarkable movements in this country, in terms of prisoners theorizing and testing out their theories in practice, in struggle,” argued Ware, noting prison strikes in Georgia in 2010, Texas in 2016, and the nationwide prison strikes that took place in 2016 and 2018. Prisoners in Alabama, by the thousands, are now carrying this torch forward, by refusing their labor on a state wide level. “What’s impressive about this strike is that they managed to organize all of the workers,” noted Ware, which includes many prisoners who have worked their jobs on the inside for decades.

In response, prison officials are having to keep prisons on a form of modified lock-down and do some of the work usually done by prisoners themselves. “Staffing levels are so low, they need a lot of prison labor to run the facilities. [Prisoners] refusing to cook and clean are the two most important aspects…it keeps the guards busy,” Ware stated. One prisoner even posted to social media commenting, “Warden and officers are working in the kitchen…very aggravated trying to perform kitchen duties…”

On social media, prisoners, journalists, and supporters are also posting photos of thrown together lunches, made up of unheated hot dogs and cheese sandwiches. One researcher posted a photo of pieces of bread with slices of cheese being served to prisoners, stating, “This is breakfast at Bibb prison today, one of two cold meals they’ll likely be served today. ADOC seems to be attempting to starve an end to the prison worker strike.” According to the Alabama Political Reporter:

In a statement released by an individual involved in the organizing efforts on Tuesday, the individual, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, expressed the organizing group’s demand of ADOC Commissioner John Hamm to rescind a supposed order for major facilities to begin “bird feeding” incarcerated individuals, a practice of providing smaller meals than usual in an attempt to starve out protests.

In response to the photos of these meals going viral, ADOC issued a press release stating:

…these work stoppages have affected food services given that inmate workers work up a large part of the facility support workforce. Facilities have been on a holiday meal schedule since Monday…This is not a retaliatory measure but logistically necessary to ensure that other critical services are being provided.

But prisoners also report that ADOC officials are attempting to break the strike in other ways: either through repression, or by bringing in other prisoners, or by threatening strikers with being transferred. On Twitter, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak wrote:

The Comrades in Alabama prisons report in that more people have joined the ongoing strike. Alabama prisoncrats are now moving in lower security prisoners to do the work higher security prisoners are refusing to.

A video posted by the Free Alabama Movement features an interview with a prisoner, stating:

Alabama prison officials are forcing men at work release facilities to prepare meals for striking prisons. This man secreted himself from the kitchen to give this interview. He feared for his safety and wanted to get the word out.

On the fourth day of the strike, the Free Alabama Movement also reported that “Robert Earl Council [also known as Kinetik Justice] has been assaulted by ADOC correctional officers and placed into the solitary confinement unit. This is at least the second time Mr. Council has been assaulted by ADOC staff in the past 21 months. In January 2021, Mr. Council was beaten nearly to death at Donaldson Correctional Facility.”

Fighting Against Horrific Conditions

For years, prisoners in Alabama have been fighting, organizing, and striking to improve conditions – and for good reason. In 2021, “people incarcerated in Alabama prisons died from violence and drugs in record numbers,” despite a “U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit filed against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) one year [before].”

As Common Dreams wrote:

Organizers circulated a “message from the inside” saying the roughly 25,000 incarcerated people in the state are “in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to Eighth Amendment violations.” This crisis has occurred as a result of antiquated sentencing laws that led to overcrowding, numerous deaths, [and] severe physical injury, as well as mental anguish to incarcerated individuals,” said the inmates. Along with the overcrowding and chronic understaffing, inmates face the use of solitary confinement as a “protection” measure, “a high level of violence” including rape, a failure by officials to separate sexually violent offenders from vulnerable inmates, and a lack of “safe and sanitary” living conditions which have reportedly included open sewage, mold, and toxic fumes in kitchen areas.

As the New York Times reported:

The Alabama corrections system has drawn the ire of the Justice Department, which released a report in 2019 that outlined “severe, systemic” conditions across the state’s prisons that violated constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment because they were in danger of being raped or murdered. The report found that major prisons were at 182 percent of capacity, and that prisoners in the Alabama system endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country.

In response to the strike, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey simply doubled down on a “law and order” message, stating in a press release, “These “demands” – as the protestors refer to them – are unreasonable and would flat out not be welcomed in Alabama.”

Prisoners Remain Committed to the Strike

But prisoners remain steadfast. In a statement posted to the Free Alabama Movement website, one prisoner wrote:

September 26th, 2022 is a historical and unprecedented day with the success of ALL major prison facilities going on a labor strike. Not one incarcerated citizen reported to their slave jobs which was confirmed by the ADOC Commissioners office. Every incarcerated citizen in ADOC who made this happen should be proud of this accomplishment. You have proven to yourself, the state of Alabama, and the world that over 10,000 men and women “can” stand together where it’s always said it can’t be done.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s response is not shocking at all. None of Alabama’s taxpayers will ever agree that Ivey is the brightest crayon in the box.
It’s time that we ALL understand that public safety is entwined with what takes place in our prisons and our court rooms. It is entwined with what kind of individual we are releasing back to society.

Is time we are given an opportunity to discuss changes in current Alabama laws that have played a significant role in the current issues surrounding the inhumane conditions writhing ADOC. it’s time the lawmakers give us an opportunity to be heard and present solutions. And yes, it’s time Alabama stops telling those who are within the prison system nothing will change.

Another prisoner stated:

Today across the state, incarcerated individuals and their families are banning together as one in a show of solidarity against the inhumane and unjust treatment of them all. No matter what role you play in this state you have influence, a voice and a choice. It is past time for something to be done in this state and we, the people of Alabama, are tired of standing back and waiting for change to come. Today we start the strongest and hardest fight against the state of Alabama to do what is right for these individuals. No man or woman deserves to be treated as less than animals, we all have basic human rights which you are not allowing. The more harm that comes to these men and women at the hands of Alabama the harder we will fight, we’re not backing down.

News of the strike continues to grow, both in the national press and on local news outlets, with prisoners continuing to post on social media, sharing news, updates, and messages of solidarity with each other. As one prisoner on the Free Alabama Movement website wrote on the historic importance of the strike, “I don’t know how many people are truly paying attention to the revolution taking place right under your noses.” But, as the strike continues and more prisoners and their supporters catch wind of the revolt, its quite possible that the strike may indeed spread.

photo: Ed Hinchliffe via Unsplash

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