Alabama prisoners organize against a system rigged to maintain a system of modern day slavery

Alabama prisoners lead struggle against “most violent and inhumane prison system in the country”

February 27, 2024 by Natalia Marques
St. Clair Correctional Facility (Photo: William Widmer via the Equal Justice Initiative)

Formerly and currently incarcerated organizers in Alabama are striking out against a prison system that they characterize as slavery. Since February 6, organizers imprisoned at the St. Clair Correctional Facility near Birmingham have organized a “shutdown” of the prison to protest the inhumane conditions and policies of the state’s Department of Corrections. They allege that the DOC has a systematic practice to deny parole to inmates in order to feed the USD 450 million per year prison labor industry. Organizers are also bringing to light the shockingly inhumane treatment within Alabama prisons, highlighting the case of an Alabama prisoner’s body that was returned with a missing organ in November 2023, and the state’s novel use of nitrogen gas in executions

Incarcerated organizers, many of them forming part of organizations such as the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), have been leading the efforts against the Alabama prison system. The specific demands they have brought forward include repealing the Habitual Felony Offender Act, which they argue keeps prisoners, particularly Black prisoners, incarcerated. Other demands are abolishing life sentences without parole, instating mandatory parole guidelines and retroactive sentencing guidelines, ending nitrogen gas executions, and ending the theft of prisoner organs.

In 2022, prisoners initiated work stoppages at every single major correctional facility in the state. Prisoners are now trying to replicate many of the same tactics as the 2022 shutdowns. Organizers are trying to sustain the shutdown of St. Clair, which began on February 6, for at least 90 days. The goal is to spread the shutdown to all ADOC facilities. Outside the prison walls, weekly protests have also been organized outside St. Clair to express solidarity with the shutdown.

Prison slavery perpetuated by Alabama’s parole system

Organizers have highlighted that major corporations directly profit from prison labor. These include fast food giants McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, and Wendy’s, where inmates are leased by ADOC to work, a disturbing echo of the racist “convict-leasing” prison slavery programs that occurred right after chattel slavery was abolished in the US South. 

The brokenness of Alabama’s parole system has been widely documented. Last year, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles only granted 8% of paroles. The board went as far as to reject all 10 people who were over 80 last year. According to an analysis from April and May of 2023, Black men were 25% less likely to get parole than white men.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Cecilia Prado, part of the Tennessee Student Solidarity Network, a group that has been organizing in coalition with the Free Alabama Movement and incarcerated organizers. Prado pointed out that ADOC makes USD 450 million each year from under or unpaid prison labor, a number that comes from a lawsuit filed on December 12, 2023 by current and former Alabama prisoners. The lawsuit alleges that Alabama prisons intentionally keep parole rates low to maintain a steady labor force. 

“[Incarcerated organizers] are participating in work stoppages and boycotts, but they do not call it a prison strike, because they know that people on the outside usually confuse or have the idea of prison strikes being related to wages, or to better benefits,” Prado said. “They do not want just better benefits. They want the incentive, the massive financial incentive of the prison labor economy to go away, because it’s behind the fact that Alabama prisons are the most deadly, the most crowded in the country,” Prado said.

According to a 2018 report by the Equal Justice Initiative, Alabama prisons had a rate of over 34 homicides per 100,000 people, over 600% the national average from 2001 to 2014. In 2019, the Equal Justice Initiative also reported that the Alabama prison system is the most overcrowded in the country, operating at 167.8% capacity.

“Alabama prisons reveal a lot about the way that our economy depends on incarcerated people’s labor, which is forced labor, the way that our prisons are decaying, the dehumanization of incarcerated people,” said Prado.

I could see the horror in his eyes”

Prison organizers have also highlighted the inhumane treatment within the Alabama prison system, namely the stealing of prisoner organs and the recent use of nitrogen gas for executions. After Alabama inmate Brandon Dotson died on November 16, 2023 at Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton, his body was returned to his family severely decomposed, enough to warrant a closed-casket funeral, and missing a heart. The whereabouts of Dotson’s heart are still unknown. 

According to FAM, this is not the first time that ADOC has been suspected of illegal organ harvesting. On January 10, FAM posted on X, “The first time we heard of a person’s internal organs and brain missing was Bro. Yusef, (Mr. Bonine Johnson). He was thought to have no family members to claim his body but when a local Islamic Community stepped up and retrieved his body, the top of his head popped off and they discovered that his brain was missing. Further examinations reveal that his internal organs were also missing.”

Alabama became the first state to introduce nitrogen gas executions on January 25 with the execution of Kenneth Smith. Smith’s spiritual adviser, Jeff Hood, witnessed the execution and wrote extensively about how horrific the process was. “When nitrogen gas started to flow, Kenny’s face grew more and more intense with every second. Colors started to change. Veins started to flex. Every muscle in his body started to tense,” Hood wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today. “We had been told by Alabama officials that the gas would kill Kenny in seconds, but the execution was now going on for minutes. Kenny was very much still conscious. I could see the horror in his eyes. In fact, I’ll never forget it.”

The state of Alabama believes that nitrogen gas executions are “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised” according to court records, but little is known about how the method was carried out because Alabama heavily redacted its published protocol. 

Organizers outside the prisons have called for several solidarity protests outside of St. Clair prison as prisoners carry out the shutdown of prison labor. The next solidarity protest is scheduled for Saturday, March 2. Organizers are also calling on the public to call Donaldson Prison to fire Lieutenant Akeem Edmonds, who incarcerated organizers claim beat six inmates while they were handcuffed and laying face down on the ground. 

“The Free Alabama movement has been organizing under unimaginable conditions,” said Prado. “They are getting into solitary confinement. They’re getting death threats. They’re getting beaten almost to death. And they are enduring these immense violence and are continuing to organize and have done so with a remarkable level of persistence and resilience.”