Prison labor strike in Alabama: ‘We will no longer contribute to our own oppression’

by Jack Denton

Despite being held in solitary confinement for years, men known as Kinetik, Dhati and Brother M, primary leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, have been instrumental in organizing a statewide prison work stoppage in Alabama that began on Sunday, May 1. The prison labor strike has begun at Alabama’s Holman, Staton and Elmore Correctional Facilities. St. Clair’s stoppage was set to begin on May 9, with Donaldson and other correctional facilities to follow soon after.

Alabama prisons are the most overcrowded in the country. This is Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. – Photo: Brynn Anderson, AP
Alabama prisons are the most overcrowded in the country. This is Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Alabama. – Photo: Brynn Anderson, AP

The current plan is for the work stoppage to last 30 days, although the movement’s leaders said the length of the strike is contingent on the cooperation of legislators in regard to reforming the prison labor system and the conditions of the prisons. The Free Alabama Movement is an activist network of incarcerated men, spanning numerous state prisons across Alabama.

Participants report that, apparently in retaliation against the work stoppage, the entire populations of the striking prisons have been served significantly smaller meal portions this week, a tactic called “bird feeding” that is sometimes used by prison guards to put pressure on prisoners through malnourishment. “They are trying to starve a nigga into compliance,” said one man, who estimated that his meals had been reduced by more than 60 percent of his normal serving size.

Prisons that have not begun striking, but are soon scheduled to, like St. Clair, are also allegedly being bird-fed. “The food is always garbage,” said one man, “but it’s usually a lot more than this.”

“They are trying to starve a nigga into compliance,” said one man, who estimated that his meals had been reduced by more than 60 percent of his normal serving size.

Additionally, the entire populations of Alabama’s striking prisons – including the general prison population not usually in 23 hour a day segregation – have been placed in indefinite solitary confinement. A statement released by the Alabama Department of Corrections calls this a “lockdown with limited inmate movement” that will persist “while ADOC investigates the situation.”

Holman was also placed on lockdown in March following an uprising in which a correctional officer and the warden were stabbed after intervening in a fight, and prisoners briefly set fire to hallways.

Prisoners wait in the lunch line at the overcrowded Elmore Prison in Alabama. – Photo: Brynn Anderson, AP
Prisoners wait in the lunch line at the overcrowded Elmore Prison in Alabama. – Photo: Brynn Anderson, AP

The prisoner work stoppage is a nonviolent protest against many of the conditions in Alabama’s prisons, especially against the unpaid prison labor that makes money for private companies and the state of Alabama. During the stoppage, Alabama’s incarcerated will refuse to leave their cells to perform the jobs that they usually perform each day for little to no pay.

These range from the many jobs that allow the prison to function, such as serving food, to “industry” jobs, which allow private companies to profit off of prison labor. These “industry” jobs are the only jobs in Alabama prisons that pay at all, though the pay rates are negligible, ranging from $0.17 to $0.30 an hour.

At Holman, the industry jobs are done at the tag plant that makes license plates for the state of Alabama and the sewing factory that makes sheets and pillowcases for Alabama’s state prisons. Elmore contains a canning and recycling plant, and St. Clair contains a vehicle restoration and chemical plant that, according to the Free Alabama Movement, produces more than $25 million worth of chemicals a year.

The prisoner work stoppage is a nonviolent protest against many of the conditions in Alabama’s prisons, especially against the unpaid prison labor that makes money for private companies and the state of Alabama.

The use of prison labor in Alabama by private, for-profit companies was legalized by the Alabama state legislature in 2012. “We are going to put our prisoners to work. They are going to be paid a reasonable wage,” Alabama state representative and bill sponsor Jim McClendon told AL.com at the time. Since then, Alabama has developed 17 different prison labor industries at correctional facilities across the state.

Alabama’s incarcerated are regularly charged what they call “outrageous fines” and fees, despite the fact that they are paid nothing or only a few cents an hour for their labor. “Our mass incarceration is a form of slavery, because we’re not being paid for our work, but we’re being charged outrageous fines,” one man told Solitary Watch.

This black mold is in a shower at Holman Prison.
This black mold is in a shower at Holman Prison.

Required fees include $4 for armbands, $4 for identification cards and $31.50 for a urinalysis test. Prisoners are charged $200 to petition a court, which is their only way to file a complaint, since Alabama’s prisons have no grievance procedure.

Incarcerated individuals are also charged $25 dollars for being caught with a cell phone the first time, $50 the second time, and $75 the third. The fine goes up by $25 each time, despite the fact that correctional officers sell the phones to prisoners, and that the phones are primarily used by the incarcerated to contact their families.

These families are required to cover the costs of these fines and fees incurred by their loved ones inside, since prison labor is unpaid or barely paid. “This is extortion; there’s no other way to put it,” said another man.

The Free Alabama Movement is not just hoping for change in the practices of their individual facilities, but for legal change in Montgomery. “Our problem is with the legislature,” Dhati told Solitary Watch. “No one within these facilities can resolve these issues for us. We have a spokesperson outside of prison that will give our demands to the state legislature for us.”

That spokesperson is Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow, a Dothan, Alabama, pastor and the younger brother of Al Sharpton. Glasgow is the director of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), a nonprofit that serves as a halfway house for many people recently released from Alabama prisons, providing them food, housing, addiction counseling and job training.

Glasgow has long been an advocate for incarcerated people, having once served 15 years himself on drug-related charges. During the work stoppage, Glasgow said, “I am the advocate for the Free Alabama Movement … I am here to make sure their voices are heard.”

Last Thursday, Glasgow visited the statehouse in Montgomery to speak to state legislators about the work stoppage and the Movement’s demands. Glasgow told Solitary Watch that he will also be back in Montgomery later this week. He said that he had already received supportive comments from the state legislature’s Democratic caucus.

Another view of the filthy, moldy shower room at Holman Prison
Another view of the filthy, moldy shower room at Holman Prison

When reached for comment, the Alabama Department of Corrections refused to answer specific questions, but pointed to a press release sent out on Monday, May 2, that alleged, despite Glasgow’s advocacy as a spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement, that the DOC had not been “given any demands, or a reason for refusing to work.”

A statement from the Free Alabama Movement, which they said was sent to the Alabama DOC on Monday, makes it clear that their chief demand is the abolition of unpaid prison labor, which they consider to be slavery. The work stoppage is “about the 13th Amendment, the Alabama Constitution of 1901 and the Statutory Laws discriminatorily enacted from both,” the document states.

Currently, the text of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution outlaws slavery for all “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Other demands include the improvement of the unsanitary living quarters and drinking water in Alabama’s prisons, and the creation of a grievance procedure in Alabama’s prisons.

“We will no longer contribute to our own oppression,” Kinetik said. “We will no longer continue to work for free and be treated like this.” Dhati called the nonviolent work stoppage “an economic solution to an economic problem.”

What the movement calls their “deplorable conditions of confinement” refers not only to the cleanliness of the cells, but also to the negligence those in solitary confinement experience. Every cell in the solitary confinement unit at Alabama’s Holman State Correctional Facility is equipped with a call button, to be used to summon prison guards for help in an emergency. Despite their apparent function, these buttons fail to send a signal to the guards or elsewhere, so prisoners’ requests for help often go unheeded.

A statement from the Free Alabama Movement, which they said was sent to the Alabama DOC on Monday, makes it clear that their chief demand is the abolition of unpaid prison labor, which they consider to be slavery.

“In 2001, I was the very first person in the segregation unit, and I actually cleaned the white chalk off the walls after they built this place. The buttons have never worked; they serve no purpose,” said Kinetik, who has spent the last 27 consecutive months in Holman’s solitary confinement unit. “There is no ability to communicate emergencies with officers and staff without kicking on the door, screaming and hollering, making as much noise as you can so someone will come out of the cube and assist you.”

At Holman Prison, the problem of a leaking roof is “solved” by hanging tarps from the ceiling.
At Holman Prison, the problem of a leaking roof is “solved” by hanging tarps from the ceiling.

The 200 men in Homan’s solitary confinement unit, which has experienced three suicides in recent months, are not only isolated from the general prison population, but also from administrative supervision and medical attention. Allegedly due to funding-related short staffing, guards are rarely present in the solitary unit, and only pass through to deliver meals, and for “pill-call,” three times a day.

The lack of supervision means that medical emergencies like the recent suicides frequently go unattended to for several hours.

At St. Claire Correctional facility, on the other side of the state, conditions are similar. Dhati, who has also been in solitary for 27 months, recalled a recent incident in which a prisoner had been stabbed in the lung and was bleeding out in his cell. Without any guards present, concerned prisoners in the solitary unit started a fire and broke a window so the guards would notice the smoke and come into the unit.

Dhati and the other men in the unit had to be treated for smoke inhalation, but the stabbed man survived after the medical attention that followed the fire.

At prisons across the state, the water is said to be badly contaminated and unsafe to drink. “You can actually taste the chemicals in the water,” one prisoner said. “The water looks like fog. You cannot drink it,” said another. People at multiple prisons across Alabama spoke of numerous incarcerated individuals developing stomach problems from drinking the water, which the correctional officers apparently never drink, opting to bring in bottled water by the case.

In fact, the guards allegedly encourage the men in their charge to avoid drinking the prisons’ water, for their own safety. But the only alternative offered to prisoners is a sickly red juice that “leaves a stain on stainless steel for years.” Since Kinetik, like most of the men, refuses to drink the juice, he sips only enough of the prison’s dirty water to stay alive. “I drink it very, very sparingly, as necessary, he said. I’m constantly dehydrated, my lips are always cracking.”

At prisons across the state, the water is said to be badly contaminated and unsafe to drink. “You can actually taste the chemicals in the water,” one prisoner said.

The living conditions being protested by the Free Alabama Movement also include extremely dirty cells and a lack of cleaning materials. Incarcerated men across the state claim that it has been over eight months since they have received any soap or cleaning materials to cleanse their tiny living spaces, where those in solitary spend their entire days.

The living conditions being protested by the Free Alabama Movement also include extremely dirty cells and a lack of cleaning materials.

Many attempt to use their own clothing and bathing soap to clean their cells, to little effect. Officers blame the dirty cells on budget issues and short staff, yet the hall floors that the officers work on are reportedly cleaned three times a day. “On a day to day basis,” Kinetik said, “this is one of the most unsanitary and most dangerous places in the state of Alabama.”

This story was originally published on Solitary Watch and republished on Counterpunch.

Striking prisoners in Alabama accuse officials of using food as weapon

by Alice Speri

Alabama prisoners who have been on strike for 10 days over unpaid labor and prison conditions are accusing officials of retaliating against their protest by starving them. The coordinated strike started on May 1, International Workers’ Day, when prisoners at the Holman and Elmore facilities refused to report to their prison jobs and has since expanded to Staton, St. Clair and Donaldson facilities, according to organizers with the Free Alabama Movement, a network of prison activists.

This is what Alabama prisoners call “bird feeding.” Prisoners say officials are cutting back on food portions to well below the mandatory calorie count in retaliation for the work strike. – Photo courtesy The Intercept
This is what Alabama prisoners call “bird feeding.” Prisoners say officials are cutting back on food portions to well below the mandatory calorie count in retaliation for the work strike. – Photo courtesy The Intercept

Prison officials responded by putting the facilities on lockdown, partially to allow guards to perform jobs normally carried out by prisoners. But prisoners told The Intercept that officials also punished them by serving meals that are significantly smaller than usual, a practice they have referred to as “bird feeding.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though earlier this month they told local reporters that inmates had “not given any demands, or a reason for refusing to work.”

Prisoners told The Intercept they are protesting severe overcrowding, poor living conditions, and the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery and servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” thus sanctioning the legality of forced, unpaid prison labor. Prisoners said they have voiced their requests in meetings with prison officials but were told their demands were “too great.”

Last month, after riots broke out at Holman prison twice in four days, prisoners also circulated a list of demands, including federal assistance, the release of inmates who are eligible for parole, and compensation for “mental pain and physical abuse.” They are planning to circulate an updated list today.

Another bird feeding meal
Another bird feeding meal

A prisoner serving a life sentence at Holman prison shared photos of his meals in text messages over the last several days. One picture shows a meal made of two slices of white bread, cereal, a slice of yellow cheese, artificial sugar and a brown sauce the inmate said was prune stew. Another meal was made up of two slices of white bread, an apple, and an unrecognizable white mixture wrapped in plastic.

The inmates said they were not complaining about the food itself, but about the very small quantities. “It’s only an issue when the deprivation of any necessity becomes a weapon used against us to make us discouraged,” the man sharing the photos said, adding that officials are using the tactic to break prisoners’ resolve. Still, prisoners have refused to return to work.

“The food is a blatant violation and these violations are the reason that we even formed a strike from the start,” that prisoner said. “We r not supposed to be fed the way they r feeding us, it is not 2300 or 2200 calories that we r suppose to be getting that they have been serving us for ten days straight.”

“We r weak feeling nauseated and having headaches from the lack of balanced meals,” he wrote.

Alabama’s prisons – the most overcrowded prison system in the country – are operating at nearly 200 percent capacity. In recent years, the state’s department of corrections has been sued over medical neglect, abuse, dangerous conditions, and an extraordinary high level of violence. Stabbings are frequent, as are suicides.

State officials have acknowledged the problems plaguing Alabama’s prisons and recently proposed to shut down 14 prisons, swapping them for four massive, new “state-of-the-art” facilities – an $800 million project they dubbed the “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act.” A scaled-down version of that proposal is currently pending.

Yet another bird feeding meal – not enough food for grown men and very little nutrition
Yet another bird feeding meal – not enough food for grown men and very little nutrition

Prisoner rights advocates say building more prisons won’t solve the problem. “The crisis with the prisons has to do with culture and management,” Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which represents Alabama prisoners, told The Intercept last month. “It’s not something that can be solved by just building new prisons.”

Prison strikes have been on the rise in recent years, as prisoners organizing through a network of smuggled cell phones have established communication between prisons as well as with the outside. Last month, prisoners in Texas refused to leave their cells to report to their unpaid jobs, listing a series of demands, including “good-time” credit toward sentence reduction, an end to $100 medical co-pays, and a drastic downsizing of the state’s incarcerated population.

A nationwide strike is also planned for Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison riot, by a group of prisoners coordinating efforts from Ohio, Alabama, Virginia and Mississippi. As many as 870,000 prisoners are employed nationwide, some in manufacturing jobs for which they are paid a few cents an hour, if they are paid at all.

“We have made a vow to no longer cater to what we know to be inhumane and barbaric in its essence,” the Holman prisoners wrote, when announcing the strike. “We make this stand now and we will remain here.”

“We just refuse to be the components in the institution of slavery.”

Alice Speri is a multimedia journalist with an interest in justice, civil rights and the struggle for equality. She has reported on state violence and institutional failure in the U.S. and abroad, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Haiti and Palestine. Her work has appeared in VICE News, Al Jazeera America, the New York Times and several other publications. She is originally from Italy and lives in the Bronx. She can be reached at alice.speri@theintercept.com or @alicesperi. This story first appeared on The Intercept.