By Ryan Fatica, September 30, 2022
This article originally published by Unicorn Riot
Prisoners across Alabama launched a coordinated work stoppage Monday, refusing to attend their work assignments and essentially shutting down normal operations of the prison system in the state.
Although the exact number of prisoners on strike is unknown, an outside organizer with prisoner support group Both Sides of the Walls estimates that about 80% of Alabama prisoners have participated in the strike. On Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) admitted that strikes were occurring at “most major male facilities.” There are approximately 16,000 prisoners assigned to major male facilities in Alabama.
The inhumane conditions in Alabama prisons have been extensively documented, including in a 2019 Department of Justice report that found that the ADOC “does not reasonably protect prisoners from rampant violence” and sexual abuse, and that conditions in Alabama prisons “violate the Constitution.”
Unicorn Riot spoke with two different prisoners incarcerated at Fountain Correctional Facility near Atmore. One who goes by Swift Justice when speaking with the media and another who goes by Logical Solutions. Swift said that 100% of prisoners at their facility are currently on strike. When asked how long he thought the strike would continue, he said that he believed organizers were requesting “that they abandon these jobs indefinitely.”
Logical Solutions told us that prisoners are unified and the environment around him is peaceful. “It’s not chaotic and it’s nonviolent,” he said. “No inmates have any kind of tensions with each other. And neither are we showing any kind of tensions with the authorities.”
Solutions said that prisoners have realized that they no longer want to work for the prison system that’s keeping them locked up. “It’s simply saying that we are refusing to work because there’s no reward,” he said. “There’s no recognition, it’s not doing us any good and all that we doing is contributing to a system that’s encaging us.”
At Limestone Correctional Facility (the state’s largest prison, located in Harvest), Kinetik Justice, a striking prisoner who also goes by his legal name Robert Earl Council, told Unicorn Riot that sentencing laws and the parole board in Alabama have effectively made it impossible for certain prisoners to ever go home. In those situations, there is little to no motivation for them to continue to work prison jobs that keep the prison functioning.
“It makes no sense for us to continue to contribute to our own oppression,” Kinetik said. “We finance our own incarceration through our free labor and spending every dime we get in they canteens and so forth. It is our money and our family’s money that is used to keep us incarcerated and oppressed like this.”
On Friday, prisoner advocates launched a phone zap campaign to demand Kinetik be released from solitary confinement where he was transferred to on Wednesday—a move which advocates attribute to him “exposing the ADOC & participating in the AL prison strike.”
In our exclusive interview with Kinetik below, he describes being assaulted by multiple prison guards and then being brought to “restricted housing,” also known as solitary confinement.
These conditions are not unique to just Alabama prisons, says Kinetik.
“I would tell prisoners across the country to understand what we’re doing and to link up with one another and understand that economics is what it’s about. And let’s get together in a nationwide shutdown, let’s shut all this down and let’s cut the money off and make them get it right.”Kinetik Justice
The Department of Corrections has admitted that prisoner labor is necessary for its prisons to function properly. “All facilities remain operational,” the department wrote in a press release Wednesday. “However, these work stoppages have affected food services given that inmate workers make up a large part of the facility support workforce.”
When asked who is performing the essential activities of the prison, Swift responded: “Nobody.”
During previous strikes, Swift said, prison staff would perform services previously fulfilled by prison workers, but due to staff shortages, they are unable to do so. “When they have more staff members, the actual staff, the correctional officers, the wardens, the lieutenants, the captains, would actually be the ones who went in and cooked the food and they actually served the food,” he said.
Instead, Swift said the prison administration is busing in work release prisoners as temporary replacement workers, commonly known as “scabs.” However in this instance, the bused-in prisoners aren’t necessarily consenting to their role.
“So what you have is a huge staff shortage,” he explained. “What they doing and what we’re hearing that they’re doing is actually bringing in work release inmates, and threatening these work release inmates: ‘You do not go and participate and make these meals or making sandwiches, that we’re going to serve these guys, we will send you back behind the fence and you will no longer be in honor camp or work release status.’”
The endemic understaffing in the Alabama prison system is one of the subjects of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The lawsuit, Braggs v. Dunn, was filed in 2014 and exposes a laundry list of horrendous conditions within the prison system, including a serious lack of mental health treatment. In a sweeping 2021 “Omnibus Remedial Order,” the judge in the case ordered the Department of Corrections to make a number of changes to its operations, including fulfilling all mandatory staff positions by July 1, 2025.
In a striking video posted to Twitter, a prisoner at the Limestone Correctional Facility interviewed a work release prisoner who said he had been bused from the North Alabama Community Work Center in Decatur, Alabama to prepare meals for the striking prisoners. In the video, the white prisoner wears a white winter cap and thermal shirt. He looks directly into the camera.
“My name’s Lebron Gregory and they forced me to come over here from Decatur to put my life in jeopardy by working against the inmates, my own people, in this peaceful protest.”Lebron Gregory
“I believe in what y’all doing,” Gregory explains. “I’ve got a 21-year sentence. Y’all are helping me.”
According to Christina Horvat, an organizer with Both Sides of the Walls, Gregory has since been placed in the segregation unit at Limestone Correctional for leaving the kitchen where he was assigned in order to join the striking prisoners. In the video, Gregory reported that other work release prisoners had also refused to work and had been placed “in a lock up cell.”
During a protest outside the ADOC offices in the state capital of Montgomery on Monday, the first day of the strike, organizers of the group Both Sides of the Walls released a list of demands. The group’s demands included a variety of reforms to sentencing law and parole board policies, including a demand that the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) be repealed.
The HFOA was passed in 1977 and its mandatory punishments include a life without parole sentence for anyone convicted of a Class A felony with any three prior felonies on their record, and a life sentence for anyone who was convicted of a Class B felony with any three prior felonies on their record.
According to Smart Justice Alabama, the law means “someone could be sentenced to die in prison for a single burglary or robbery and three prior forgery or drug convictions.”
However, Swift said that there are no centralized demands, but that each group of striking prisoners has their own demands based on their specific grievances with the prison system. As for Swift and those around him, they believe their problems can only be solved at a higher level than the Alabama Department of Corrections. “We’re not asking for demands the ADOC can control,” said Swift. “Our problems are not consisting of policy changing inside the ADOC. All of our demands are legislative related.”
In the meantime, prisoners are working hard to maintain the strike in the midst of increasingly difficult conditions, including not having enough to eat.
“Our meals consist of two bologna sandwiches in the morning time and two bologna sandwiches at dinner time,” said Swift. “And when you do the calorie intake on that right there, a bologna sandwich with cheese, and on wheat bread, only equals up to 240 calories. So basically what we’re getting daily on that right there is just barely reaching 1000 calories a day.”
There have also been unconfirmed reports of violence against striking prisoners by prison guards. In a cell phone video presumably taken by prisoners and posted to Twitter by the group Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle, four guards can be seen beating one prisoner. Unicorn Riot was not able to independently verify the location of this event, but according to the tweet, it took place at Bullock Correctional Facility near Union Springs.
Kinetik said that after he refused to concede to a strike negotiation with authorities at Limestone Correctional Facility Wednesday, a special response team searched his cell and told him he was going to “restricted housing.”
“At that point, one grabbed me by one arm and tried to break my wrist,” said Kinetik. “One grabbed me by the leg and then they slammed me to the floor and about four more came and they dragged me out of the dorm and threw me on the trash cart outside and pulled me to the infirmary on a trash cart with handcuffs that were so tight on my hands that I can’t feel my fingers today. Right now I can’t feel my fingers.”
After years of being promised reforms that would change the material conditions of their daily lives, Alabama prisoners continue to live in harsh conditions with no hope of improvement or release in sight. Now, prisoners say they’ve had enough.
“Basically, the message that we are sending is, the courts have shut down on us, the parole board has shut down on us. This society has long ago shut down on us. So basically, if that’s the case, and you’re not wanting us to return back to society, you can run these facilities yourselves.”Swift Justice