Alabama prisoners organize a system-wide shut down

On September 26 Alabama prison officials made a rare admission: prisoners had initiated work stoppages at every single major correctional facility in the state.

September 30, 2022 by Natalia Marques
In a nation where over 80% of incarcerated workers are tasked with maintaining the prison itself, either through cooking, cleaning, laundry, or other essential needs, work stoppages can mean that the entire prison system shuts down.

“The state of Alabama is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis,” begins a demand letter authored by Alabama prisoners, who on September 26 went on strike across all major correctional facilities in the State. The letter continues, “This crisis has occurred as a result of antiquated sentencing laws that led to overcrowding, numerous deaths, severe physical injury, as well as mental anguish to incarcerated individuals.” 

In a country where over 80% of incarcerated workers are tasked with maintaining the prison itself, either through cooking, cleaning, laundry, or other essential needs, work stoppages can mean that the entire prison system shuts down. The strike is ongoing as of September 30 according to reports from inside prison walls.

In conjunction with the strike, activists from organizations such as the Alabama Prison Advocacy & Incarcerated Families United Group and Both Sides of the Wall joined family members of incarcerated organizers at a rally called ‘Break Every Chain.’ The rally took place outside the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) headquarters in Montgomery, with the demand that State accept the prisoners’ demands. Organizers attempted to hand-deliver the demands letter to ADOC, but had to leave the letter at the counter as no employee came forward to collect it.

On the day the strike began, Alabama prison officials admitted that there are “reports of worker stoppages at all major Correctional Facilities in the state,” and said “controlled movement and other security measures have been deployed.” Activists have pointed out that prison officials rarely acknowledge prisoner-led actions, indicating that this strike is too massive to brush under the rug.

Prison slavery 

On September 26, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm claimed that “all facilities are operational and there have [sic] been no disruption of critical services.” But according to reports shared by the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a human rights organization founded by Alabama prisoners, prison officials are scrambling. “Alabama prison Commissioner has lied.. We are getting reports that all major institutions are under lock down not ‘operational.’” said one report. A September 28 report claimed that the prison warden and officers at Fountain Correctional Facility were struggling to perform the kitchen duties that incarcerated workers had discontinued in protest. 

Alabama prisons are severely understaffed with non-incarcerated labor. Even without this shortage, however, incarcerated labor is the pillar on which the functioning of the prisons rests upon. Yet prison workers function essentially as slaves, working for little to no pay. Alabama is one of five states which forces prisoners to work under threat of punishment or no pay, and one of seven states which does not pay prisoners at all for the vast majority of work assignments. These material conditions have led many to draw the comparison to chattel slavery, especially as most incarcerated in Alabama prisons are Black.

Attacking mass incarceration at the root

The central demands of the striking prisoners, however, were attacking the legal structure of mass incarceration itself, not just labor conditions. The demands are as follows:

  1. Repeal the habitual offender law immediately
  2. Make presumptive sentencing standards retroactive immediately
  3. Repeal the drive-by shooting statute
  4. Create a statewide Conviction Integrity Unit
  5. Create mandatory parole criteria that will guarantee parole to all eligible persons who meet the criteria
  6. Create a streamlined review process for medical furloughs and review of elderly incarcerated individuals
  7. Immediate release reduction of the 30 year minimum for juvenile offenders to no more than 15 years before they are eligible for parole
  8. Victims should not be able to keep protesting after an incarcerated citizens’ second time going up for parole

Notably, these demands center around lengthy sentencing that sustains the system of mass incarceration in the US. This is especially clear in Alabama, where the parole board has become notorious for denying the vast majority of paroles. During the fiscal year 2021, the State’s parole rate fell far short of the Alabama Parole Board’s own recommended guidelines, with only 15% of eligible prisoners granted parole. Black prisoners were granted parole less than half as frequently as white prisoners. Michael Antonio Bettis, a Black prisoner who has served 12 years out of a 20-year sentence for marijuana possession and distribution, was denied parole in May.

According to the Alabama drive-by shooting statute, or Section 13a-5-40(17), Code of Alabama 1975, killing a person through a drive-by shooting is punishable by death. This statute is a relic of the 1990’s tough-on-crime era in which many laws that precipitated mass incarceration were passed, including current President Joe Biden’s infamous Crime Bill. According to FAM, this statute has been applied disproportionately against Black men.

The Alabama Habitual Offender Law is also a site of struggle. This law, similar to many laws such as California’s Three-Strike Law, allows those who have been convicted of three felonies to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Many have criticized this law for not including any distinction between violent and non-violent felonies. Individuals who have committed three non-violent crimes can be given life sentences under this law. In practice, 350 individuals who have committed non-homicide crimes are currently serving life sentences in Alabama.

As of 2021, Alabama incarcerated 938 per 100,000 people, a rate higher than every country on Earth and the vast majority of States in the US. The state does not seem determined to change this. At one point during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama was averaging the highest number of COVID deaths in the nation—the epicenter of the epicenter. And yet it diverted $400 million in COVID relief to fund the construction of three mega-prisons.

A system with an appetite for violence

Apart from containing around 1% of Alabama’s total population, the state’s prison system is also notoriously violent.

Alabama, the State in which the Black Scottsboro Boys narrowly escaped the death penalty after being falsely accused raping two white girls in 1931, has the fifth highest execution rate in the US. Recently, ADOC’s botching of two executions made headlines. In the case of Alan Eugene Miller, ADOC executioners failed to find a vein through which to inject lethal poison on September 22 before Miller’s death warrant expired. In the case of Joe Nathan James Jr., Alabama prison officials delayed the execution for three hours without explanation. An autopsy later revealed that ADOC had mutilated James in their attempt to locate a vein. “My initial impression of James was of someone whose hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex,” wrote a journalist who viewed James’ body.

Shortly before the strike, but unrelated, the ADOC once again came under fire for their alleged medical mistreatment of prisoner Kastellio Demarcus Vaughan. On September 21, Vaughan’s sister Kassie Vaughan revealed disturbing pictures of Vaughan looking emaciated and physically ill, claiming that her brother had been healthy only months prior. Vaughan is currently incarcerated at Elmore Correctional Center. Following a public outcry, ADOC claimed that Vaughan had refused medical treatment. Kassie Vaughan responded on social media, writing, “I don’t understand how Elmore Correctional Center can say this situation is not real. They have no sympathy or compassion to at least speak out on their wrong doings. My brother laid there in pain. Malnourished. Bones protruding out his body. His wound clearly open and susceptible to infection. He wasn’t recognizable as my brother. He looked lifeless.”

In December 2020, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama due to the conditions in men’s prisons. In the DOJ’s own words, “Alabama fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.” 

Retaliation and government response

Incarcerated organizers are reporting from various prisons that ADOC is retaliating against the strike. According to FAM, one prisoner reported, “no yard time, no trade school, no rehabilitation programs, no law library, nooooo normal activities. Not to mention no adequate meals, even though they are bringing Decatur workrelease inmates in to make food.”

“This is punishment and retaliation… Tactics to break what is breaking ADOC,” the prisoner wrote. 

The Alabama Political Reporter wrote that according to prisoners, “all rehabilitation and education programs have halted, with privileges like wall phones and television being taken away or shut down entirely. Tablets that incarcerated individuals use to communicate with family, friends and legal representation outside of prisons have also been taken away in at least one facility.”

Through social media, prisoners shared pictures of the paltry meals they were receiving from ADOC. 

In Elmore County within the Staton Correctional Facility, prisoners reported that they would only receive meals twice a day “until they stopped protesting.” As a source told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Warden Cargle felt the need to incite the inmates by telling them last week that she didn’t give a damn if they protested; she was going to protest too by feeding them sandwiches every day for every meal…Any time she was asked if she would give them a hot meal, she refused, stating that she wasn’t going to feed them good, so they would stay protesting.”

A spokesperson for ADOC claimed that “all meals are happening.”

Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama responded to the striking prisoners’ demands. “Some of these demands suggest that criminals like murderers and serial child sex offenders can walk the streets,” Ivey wrote. “And I can tell you that will never happen in the state of Alabama where we will always prioritize the safety of our citizens.”

Reports continue to flow from behind prison walls. “No matter what they try we will not fold” wrote a prisoner, as reported by FAM.