Alabama Prison Strikers’ Demands Push for Decarceration

Initially printed by Prism.

Hours earlier than daybreak on Sept. 26, the incarcerated employees who run the jail kitchens throughout Alabama had been slated to start their shifts after they refused to take up their posts, kicking off one of many largest jail strikes in U.S. historical past.

“The whole lot was electrical from then on—[people] had been excited and anxious for motion,” mentioned Antoine Lipscomb, a founding member of the Free Alabama Motion (FAM) who spoke with Prism Studies from Limestone Correctional Facility, one of many largest and deadliest prisons within the state, at the moment housing almost 2,300 individuals.

The Alabama Division of Corrections (ADOC) classifies 14 prisons inside the state as “main amenities,” and there are almost 17,000 people incarcerated in these prisons. In a extremely uncommon transfer, the ADOC publicly confirmed the strike motion throughout “all main amenities within the state” on the very first day of the strike. Acknowledging a jail strike and its scope goes in opposition to the prevailing knowledge in jail administration. In 2018, main as much as the national prison strike, jail associations advocated using disinformation campaigns when coping with prisoner resistance to handle the disruption and discourage additional participation.

Whereas acknowledging the strike, a spokesperson for the governor mentioned the calls for of the incarcerated strikers had been “unreasonable and would flat out not be welcomed in Alabama.” The strike calls for included:

  • repealing the recurring offender regulation
  • making presumptive sentencing retroactive
  • repealing the drive-by taking pictures statute
  • making a statewide conviction integrity unit
  • growing constant standards for obligatory parole
  • streamlining processes for medical furloughs and elder launch
  • lowering the minimal sentences for juvenile offenders
  • eliminating life with out parole sentences

Advocates say removed from being “unreasonable,” these adjustments would represent a program of substantive decarceration. They’d additionally tackle the unconstitutional overcrowding of Alabama’s prisons and enhance alternatives for prisoners to return to their communities.

The work strike continued for three weeks in a minimum of 5 prisons earlier than prisoners in all amenities returned to work. Whereas the strikers’ calls for stay unfulfilled, organizers each inside and outdoors the prisons are inspired by the strike’s group and the mass assist it acquired. Opposite to ADOC’s characterization that the strike has “ended,” incarcerated organizers describe the strike as having merely been paused.

“It should resume,” Lipscomb mentioned, including that incarcerated organizers and supporters are resting, regrouping, and discussing technique. For a lot of who participated within the strikes, future strikes or protests aren’t simply autos for decarceration, they’re additionally about survival and the potential of life past incarceration.

Placing Towards Despair

Lengthy earlier than three strikes statutes grew to become popularized throughout Clinton period within the ’90s, Alabama’s model, the 1977 Habitual Offender Law, drew the ire of teachers and correctional amenities employees in 1985, who argued life with out parole sentences removes “all incentive for good habits,” and fuels “frustration and rage, which in flip produces jail riots and threats to employees.” At the moment, 75% of prisoners sentenced to die in Alabama prisons beneath the Recurring Offender Regulation are Black, regardless of Black individuals representing less than 27% of the state’s inhabitants.

Relatedly, one of many key motivations behind widespread strike participation is the state’s draconian parole board. In July, more people died inside Alabama prisons than had been granted parole. This year, the Alabama parole board has revoked parole in 67% of hearings, a charge over six occasions the speed that it has granted it. Based on ADOC information, their charge of granting parole has fallen from 54% of eligible prisoners in 2017 to 6% this past August. In a recent interview with the Montgomery Advisor, organizer Diyawn Caldwell mentioned, “Extra individuals are popping out in physique baggage than they’re on parole.”

Advocates imagine that whereas individually, the adjustments demanded by the strike may need minimal influence on the state’s incarceration charge, collectively they would supply hundreds of prisoners expanded avenues towards launch. Crucially, the strike is an try to fight the despair that comes from indefinite incarceration with no foreseeable path to freedom.

Based on prisoners, that despair is a vital ingredient to the violence and drug use that make Alabama’s prisons the deadliest within the nation. Amid six years of scrutiny, the DOJ describes confinement in ADOC prisons as “constitutional deficiencies.” That scrutiny, nevertheless, has produced no tangible enhancements. The demise charge in Alabama prisons has more than quintupled since 2005, from 33 deaths in 2005 to 173 in 2021.

The strategies Alabama state officers used to repress the resistance of the strike additional illustrate how incarcerated individuals endure on the whim of the carceral system. Household visitation was canceled, prisons carried out new “safety measures,” the Corrections Emergency Response Crew (identified inside as riot squads or goon squads) was deployed, prisoner activist Robert Earl Council, aka Kinetik Justice, was positioned in solitary confinement again, and ADOC used the strike as a pretext to scale back the variety of meals.

Officials claimed the shift to 2 chilly meals per day in main male amenities was logistical, arguing with out the prisoner labor power, they lacked the employees to cook dinner for 3 meals a day for almost 23,500 people. Prisoners known as the apply “bird feeding,” an try to starve prisoners into submission. Prisoners argued these meals didn’t meet the wants of prisoners with dietary restrictions and medical circumstances, placing extra lives in danger. ADOC additionally put out a statement in regards to the well being of a prisoner named Kastello Demarcus Vaughan to refute allegations of medical neglect.

Below these circumstances, incarcerated organizers say {that a} widespread strike and their calls for shouldn’t come as a shock.

“You’re people lastly [coming] to the conclusion, ‘Hey, I’m gonna die in right here,’” mentioned Okay. Shaun Traywick, aka Swift Justice, who’s at the moment incarcerated at Fountain Correctional Facility. “As soon as they hear it sufficient, as soon as they see it within the actions of ADOC and the parole board and society, they lastly understand possibly it’s greatest that we [strike]. Perhaps it’ll make a distinction.”

New Developments within the Jail Strike Period

Native information in Alabama referred to the strike as “an unprecedented move” by incarcerated individuals. Whereas the length, self-discipline, and scale of the strike are monumental developments within the prisoner motion, the strike the truth is is an extension of many related actions lately. Prisoner resistance, together with work and starvation strikes, boycotts, and different types of organized disobedience like “sit-downs,” have a history as prolonged as incarceration itself. Within the U.S. that is most nicely chronicled within the charming and tragic story of the Attica Rebellion and the bloodbath that ended it.

The Georgia prisoner work strike of 2010 is regularly cited by at the moment’s incarcerated organizers as a degree of origin and supply of inspiration for a brand new section of prisoner resistance. Strikers launched their calls for to state jail officers and the press, together with the demand that employees be paid a dwelling wage, noting that prisoners in Georgia acquired no wages, which they argued violated the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. This demand would later be tailored to the motion to abolish exception clauses to anti-slavery statutes. That push has been embraced by many legislative advocates, however has but to result in any decarceration or adjustments in labor practices.

As The New York Times noted, cell telephones had already been in prisons for a while, however this was the primary identified instance of incarcerated individuals utilizing them to coordinate resistance throughout totally different amenities. Additionally they grew to become a important device in circumventing the jail system’s skill to observe and forestall their communication, not solely to one another, however to most people and the press, typically by way of social media.

The next yr, individuals who had been incarcerated in California’s supermax Pelican Bay State Jail went on large rolling hunger strikes that ultimately grew to over 30,000 prisoners in the state by way of a number of phases over three years. Incarcerated organizers facilitated an settlement to finish hostilities contained in the prisons and mobilized a big outdoors group of households and advocates in solidarity. Strikers raised a number of points, however key amongst them had been California’s apply of indefinite solitary confinement, particularly for these it labeled as “gang members,” and its “debriefing” course of, which required prisoners to supply data on “gang exercise” to safe their launch from solitary. The UN has described solitary confinement for 15 days or more as torture, and prisoners argued this apply amounted to torture with insufficient pretext towards due course of or avenues for redress.

Whereas the outcomes of these strikes and the associated successful lawsuit have been varied, advanced, and partial, the strikes present a robust instance of how dynamic inside-outside motion can shift policy and practice, doubtlessly opening up new contradictions and arenas of battle in opposition to the carceral system. As an example, FAM has adopted many ways and classes discovered from the Georgia work strikes of their efforts. In 2014, incarcerated organizers mobilized two strikes in Alabama, the bigger of which led to the shutdown of two amenities — St. Clair and Holman — which on the time incarcerated roughly 2,400 people. Moreover, FAM launched “Let The Crops Rot In The Fields,” a manifesto that will encourage the coordination of nationwide prisoner strikes, the primary of which was led by FAM in 2016 and supported by the fledgling inside-outside solidarity group the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Employees of the World (IWOC-IWW).

The 2016 nationwide jail strike noticed “[l]ockdowns, inmate suspensions, and full-unit strikes lasting a minimum of 24 hours had been reported at 31 amenities,” which housed roughly 57,000 incarcerated individuals throughout 24 states, in accordance with Shadow Proof’s Brian Nam-Sonenstein. Repression against the strike was widespread. The next yr Jailhouse Legal professionals Communicate, a gaggle of incarcerated paralegals and human rights advocates who arrange nationally, launched a Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March with assist from outdoors organizations. Jail officers in Florida had been so involved about solidarity motion inside that they locked down the complete state’s almost 100,000 prisoners. The march was adopted by Operation PUSH in 2018.

Since 2018, outdoors organizations have taken different directions, some extra targeted on politicization and building infrastructure. Probably the most frequent acts of resistance by incarcerated people have taken place on extra native and regional scales in opposition to conditions that local authorities can straight tackle. Whereas these efforts have seen some victories, there hasn’t been a widespread state-wide or nationwide incarcerated-led marketing campaign over the past 4 years.

Ways of Strike Repression

Within the wake of the 2016 nationwide strike, incarcerated organizations like Jailhouse Legal professionals Communicate raised considerations in regards to the efficacy of labor strikes as a sole tactic in galvanizing collective motion amongst prisoners. Having a job can considerably have an effect on somebody’s circumstances throughout incarceration. Labor preparations inside prisons range from state to state, and in some states, it’s fairly uncommon for prisoners to have jobs. Imprisoned organizers have famous cases during which jail directors alternate sure units of privileges with jobs, corresponding to higher housing conditions, higher freedom of motion, higher entry to commissary or telephones, and maybe extra time outdoors. Stevie Wilson, who’s at the moment incarcerated in Pennsylvania, and former political prisoner James Kilgore level out that the precarity of jobs inside and enticement of particular privileges make it much more tough to persuade incarcerated individuals to sacrifice these jobs and act in solidarity with strike efforts.

Moreover, incarcerated individuals in some type of solitary confinement don’t have jobs, which suggests they will’t materially take part in a labor strike. The 2018 nationwide strike addressed this situation by increasing the tactical repertoire of resistance to incorporate commissary boycotts, acts of protest like “sit downs,” starvation strikes, and labor strikes. Whereas this will have enabled extra prisoners to take part, it may additionally doubtlessly make strike participation much less legible to the media, and it may be simpler for public officers to disclaim and repress the strikers.

Since 2018, organizers have mentioned the potential of extra main jail strikes, however amid considerations that there will not be sufficient assist to swell into collective motion, they haven’t come to fruition. Swift Justice mentioned that he had initially stepped away from organizing for the latest Alabama strike, quoting the definition of madness typically misattributed to Albert Einstein, “Doing the identical factor again and again and anticipating totally different outcomes.”

Regardless of the pessimism round strike participation and assist, the Alabama strike amongst incarcerated employees defied expectations and was strongly mirrored over social media and native information over the previous month, typically with the hashtag #ShutdownADOC2022.

Swift Justice works in a so-called “honor dorm” in ADOC, a jail house that some have characterised as inhospitable to collective protest organizing, and was shocked by the extent of solidarity and dedication he’s seen by others incarcerated there, most of whom he mentioned, “couldn’t make it on the whole inhabitants.” Defying typical knowledge, he mentioned that it has been exactly these employees with essentially the most to doubtlessly lose from taking part within the strike who had essentially the most influence. Lots of these employees managed the important duties of social replica inside — cooking, cleansing, trash removing, laundry — which enabled them to close down the complete Alabama jail system.

“The weakest hyperlink has truly become being the strongest hyperlink,” Swift Justice mentioned.

Political Schooling Pays Off within the Lengthy Time period

The New York Occasions and ADOC have each intimated of their reporting that outdoors organizers had important affect on the strike exercise inside Alabama prisons, however each the mass scale of the strike and the responses of these incarcerated there belie this notion. One prisoner who spoke with Prism Studies and wished to maintain his criticism nameless acknowledged that prisoners respect the surface assist and organizing of solidarity protests, however he scoffed on the notion that individuals on the surface had been main the best way or coordinating the motion of these on the within.

“You recognize issues don’t work like that,” he mentioned.

Lipscomb attributes the sustained dedication of the latest strike to incarcerated individuals’s frustrations with the parole system and fears over the chance of dying earlier than having the ability to be launched. Most crucially, he believes that the long-term funding that organizers like FAM have made by participating in mass political training with their incarcerated friends is paying dividends. Incarcerated individuals in Alabama have studied the organizing of the Black Panther Get together, and the ideas of figures like Kwame Ture, previously referred to as Stokely Carmichael.

Based on Lipscomb, the assist of road organizations, which command a substantial quantity of affect inside, has been important.

“They allow us to do the instructing and networking in a peace and solidarity like I’ve by no means seen earlier than,” Lipscomb mentioned. “I commend the children for his or her braveness and respect for revolutionary considering and alter.”

As incarcerated organizers regroup and focus on when and reconvene the strike, they achieve this with a confirmed skill to deliver a couple of highly effective and widespread strike in opposition to jail operations in Alabama.

“I’m a scholar of historical past, and struggling has all the time been part of life,” Lipscomb mentioned. “So I’m finding out from those that got here earlier than me as a information to [get us] the place we’re making an attempt to be, and that’s free.”

Prism is an impartial and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of shade. We report from the bottom up and on the intersections of injustice.