Editor’s note: Holman is the prison where the Free Alabama Movement and the prison strikes to end slavery were born. It takes a fiery hot furnace to forge steel, and inside this hellhole, men have grown strong as steel, their minds fertile and their brave hearts devoted to the oppressed. It was these men who spread the word that the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment still makes slavery legal for prisoners. It’s up to us to keep them alive and strategizing. Help these brilliant organizers by telling Gov. Robert Bentley to support their Peace Summits, fully staff Holman with guards who will ensure everyone’s safety with justice and reduce overcrowding by releasing prisoners, not building new prisons, as he proposes to do. Call 334-242-7100 or use Gov. Bentley’s contact form online at http://220.127.116.11/forms/contact.aspx.
Since opening its doors on Dec. 15, 1969, Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, has been a bastion of violence, fear, pain and baleful human suffering.
Built on a shoestring budget of $5 million during Gov. Lurleen Wallace’s administration, it took just five years for Holman prison’s perpetually overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary conditions to draw the ire of federal officials.
In an article titled, “Court closes Alabama prison gates,” dated Aug. 30, 1975, The St. Petersburg Times (now The Tampa Bay Times), in neighboring Florida, reported that two federal district court judges, William Brevard Hand and Frank M. Johnson Jr., ordered Alabama to stop sending prisoners to Holman (and three other prisons) due to overcrowding and the accompanying inhumanity, violence and other perils that brings.
Forty-one years later, nothing has changed.
Connor Sheets for al.com writes on Oct. 20, 2016, that “[v]iolence continues to rage at Alabama’s notorious William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. In just the past two weeks, a Holman inmate was stabbed during a four-way fight and another died of an apparent suicide.”
These incidents come “less than two weeks after the Department of Justice launched an investigation into violence, sex abuse, overcrowding and other issues at Alabama’s prisons.” Two weeks earlier, al.com’s Christopher Harress reported that “[a]s many as nine corrections officers failed to report” for work at Holman, “citing increasingly dangerous conditions and fears that they may be killed while on duty.”
In contrast to these jarring reports, Alabama’s Department of Corrections’ website presents a much more idyllic and serene (if also bleak and plantation-like) description of Holman: “Holman is located ten miles north of Atmore, Alabama[.] The perimeter of the security compound is surrounded by two fences. The inner fence is taut wire fence with the outer fence chain link.
“The compound has six towers and two perimeter vehicles which operate 24 hours a day. During the hours of darkness, the perimeter is fully lighted. The countryside in the vicinity of Holman prison is farm and timberland. The main crops are cotton and peanuts.
“Located directly behind the facility within the security compound is an industrial area consisting of a Tag Plant where all the state’s motor vehicle tags are manufactured and a sewing factory which makes sheets and pillow cases that are distributed to other state prisons.”
What I’ve observed and know from first-hand experience (as I wrote about in April, in the Selma Times-Journal) is: Every single employee the DOJ has, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, can take a junket down South to keep a 24-hour vigil over how Alabamians treat their inmates, and still, it won’t do a damn bit of good.
Using history as a guide, even if under temporary federal scrutiny, prison conditions shape up briefly, but as soon as the Yankees depart, it’ll be back to business as usual at Holman: Prisoners will be mashed together, one on top of the other. They’ll be kept indoors all day, every day, squashed in squalid, outdated, utterly inhumane and unsafe conditions.
They’ll be fed food you wouldn’t give a dog you hated. In wintertime, the heat will be kept just above testicle-freezing temperatures, and in summer – which, in this age of global warming, runs long, sometimes interminably – the temperature will be so oppressively hot and the degradation of humanity within its walls so great that Holman becomes, literally, hell on earth.
Federal oversight of Holman and the rest of Alabama’s troubled prison system is like stretching a small band-aid over a gaping wound. Until Alabamians elect a governor and legislators willing to make a real commitment – and financial investment – in the way the state treats its prisoners, even those convicted of the most heinous crimes, Alabama’s prison problems will exist in perpetuity.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It is long past time for Alabama’s antiquated prison system to emerge from the Dark Ages.
Stephen A. Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. This story first appeared on CounterPunch.