Peaceful Protest Demands Wages for Labor, End to Overcrowding and Inhumane Conditions, Transformation of American Justice System
BIRMINGHAM, AL – Hidden from public view by barbed-wire fences and windowless concrete walls, a movement is brewing in Alabama that could change America. This Monday, hundreds of men incarcerated in St. Clair and prisons across the state will stop work, adding economic muscle to their demands for wages for their labor, an end to overcrowding and inhumane conditions, an end to the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration of African-Americans, and the repurposing the prison system as a tool for genuine rehabilitation in a wounded world. The demands of the peaceful strike action are outlined in detail in the Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-Entry Preparedness Bill (FREEDOM Bill), which was presented to the state legislature by the Free Alabama Movement in January.
Melvin Ray, spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) said, “When we look at our situations inside of the Alabama Department of Corrections, we have no choice but to engage in this nonviolent and peaceful protest for civil and human rights. We sleep with rats and roaches. We work for free and eat slop unfit for human consumption. We serve decades in prison solely to provide free labor and without any real prospect for parole, and without any recourse to the courts for justice or redress of grievances. Our mothers, wives, and daughters must expose their breasts and panties just to visit us. This should not be acceptable to anyone. Prison is supposed to be a place where people go to work out issues and return to society. But when there is no focus on education or rehab but solely on profit margins, human suffering is inevitable. ADOC is about free labor and the new slavery no one wants to talk about. That is no longer going to work for the 30,000 of us who suffer because of it.”
The Alabama prison system is notoriously overcrowded. Built with a capacity of 16,000, the state’s penitentiaries currently imprison over 30,000 individuals, with catastrophic results for health and well-being of the incarcerated. Over 10,000 of the 30,000 men and women imprisoned by the Alabama Department of Corrections are forced into unpaid labor, in other words, slavery.
Unpaid labor includes cooking and cleaning, production of license plates, furniture, chemicals, and linens, and farming. At minimum wage, the total value of this slave labor is calculated at $600,000 per day, or $219 million per year. The slavery analogy is more than metaphorical: African-Americans comprise only 26% of Alabama’s population, but make up more than 60% of the prison population due to reactionary legislation and racist targeting of communities of color. Reports of beatings and systemic rape and sexual abuse of women inmates by guards at Tutwiler State Prison have surfaced in the media over the last year.
The men and women caught in the jaws of this infernal machine have begun uniting across racial and religious lines in a movement for systemic change. In January, FAM successfully organized a two-week strike involving over 3,000 men and women at four facilities. The strike was so effective that guards were forced to take over cleaning and cooking duties. On Monday, April 20th, the imprisoned workers plan to do it again, this time with the backing of a labor union.
The workers are supported by the Industrial Workers of the World, a storied labor union known for outside-the-box organizing strategies and for welcoming workers into its ranks that other unions exclude. The IWW has come to the aid of imprisoned workers before, bringing a petition for union recognition of a bargaining unit of four hundred incarcerated workers to the State of Ohio in 1987.
“A worker is a worker, whether in prison or not, and a group of workers is a union, whether recognized by the state or not. Incarcerated workers are some of the most exploited in the United States. We are doing everything we can do to support them, and call on all people of conscience in this country to join this movement to end the New Jim Crow and abolish the prison industrial complex,” says Jim Faulkner, a member of the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
The movement brewing in Alabama is part of a rising tide of resistance to racist mass incarceration in America. In December 2010, incarcerated workers in Georgia staged a strike, shutting down several prisons for weeks and demanding an end to forced prison labor. Following a smaller hunger strike in 2011, upwards of 30,000 individuals in the California prison system went on hunger strike in July 2013, protesting administrative use of solitary confinement – a practice denounced by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. Last month nearly 1,200 immigrant detainees in the privately-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington staged a hunger strike to protest poor living and working conditions. This wave of prison protest has not been limited to the United States. Prison work stoppages forced several Canadian federal prison into lock-down this past October after the Canadian government announced prison labor wage cuts.
Repression of the Free Alabama Movement has already begun. According to sources inside the prison, Holman prison warden Walter Meyers has told imprisoned workers that they can bring knives to work with them, and that if they stab anyone trying to stop them from working, he will make sure they won’t get locked up for long. Prison administrators at Holman and Bibbs prisons have sought to sow division and stir up prejudices by spreading an untrue rumor that the strike is being organized by Muslims, a calculated ploy to turn Christians in the prison against the movement. They have are also attempting to bribe the workers out of striking with a free barbecue provided by a local religious leader.
So far, the incarcerated workers have maintained their unity and solidarity. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, they will need all the support they can get.