Last summer, thousands of prisoners in California launched a 60-day hunger strike to protest and transform oppressive policies in the California Department of Corrections. One member of the organizing team called their strike action a “multi-racial, multi–regional Human Rights Movement to challenge torture.”
This weekend, another prisoner-led human rights movement is gaining momentum in Alabama. The Free Alabama Movement (FAM) seeks to analyze, resist, and transform prison slavery from within the Prison Industrial Complex.
Both of these movements challenge us, as philosophers and as people, to interrogate the meaning of slavery, torture, human rights, and political action. What does it mean to struggle for one’s human rights as an “offender” in the world’s first prison society? What can philosophers and political theorists learn from the example of incarcerated intellectuals and political actors whose everyday lives are situated at the dangerous intersection of racism, economic exploitation, sexual violence, and civil death? What would it mean to respect the specificity of the Free Alabama Movement, and at the same time to recognize that even the freedom of non-incarcerated philosophers may be bound up with the freedom of Alabama? What is freedom, after all? What – and where – and who – is Alabama?
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In what follows, I will share what I have learned about the Free Alabama Movement over the last couple of days. But don’t take my word for it! Check out the FAM website, which includes photos and videos of degrading prison conditions, as well as this brilliant spoken word analysis of prison slavery. Follow the movement on Facebook and Twitter. And read the 100-page manifesto written by prisoner-organizers about the situation in Alabama prisons and the movement to end prison slavery.
So: What is the Free Alabama Movement, and how did it begin?
As FAM organizer Melvin Ray explains in an online manifesto, the Free Alabama Movement is a prisoner-led movement calling for a “statewide shutdown on Free Labor in the form of a Non-Violent and Peaceful Protest for Civil and Human Rights” (p. 9).
Earlier this year, FAM organized a non-violent labor strike at St. Clair Correctional Facility. The strike action spread to three prisons across the state, and since then, Melvin Ray has been held in solitary confinement for his role in the strikes (AL.com).
Most prisoners in Alabama are not paid for their work, and all able-bodied prisoners are required to work. Prison labor in Alabama includes food preparation, laundry, and facility maintenance, as well as the production of furniture, license plates, and chemicals (more information here). Since 2012, private corporations have been allowed to set up shop within prisons, and in 2011, there was even talk of replacing the labor power of undocumented workers with prison labor.
Speaking on behalf of the Free Alabama Movement, Ray explains: “they’re running a slave empire” (Salon).
This reference to slavery is not a metaphor; after all, the Thirteenth Amendment does not abolish slavery completely, but rather maintains the possibility of slavery and involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime.”
In response to the material conditions of 21st-century prison slavery, the Free Alabama Movement has declared: “We don’t want to be slaves for this system” (AL.com).
FAM is committed to a non-violent struggle against the institutional violence of prison slavery and the structural violence of racism and poverty. The FAM manifesto states: “Free Alabama Movement knows that non-violence is not only our best strategy, but it is our only strategy capable of producing our desired goals” (manifesto, p. 9).
In an interview with Salon, Ray adds: “Violence is what has drawn most of us into the prisons — and that’s what we’re trying to stop” (Salon).
He continues: “We decided that the only weapon or strategy… that we have is our labor, because that’s the only reason that we’re here… They’re incarcerating people for the free labor” (Salon).
In reaching out to other prisoners who may be reluctant to join a resistance movement within a system that is designed to crush resistance, Ray says: “We have to get them to understand: You’re not giving up anything. You don’t have anything. And you’re going to gain your freedom right here” (Salon).
For an incarcerated person to join in the movement is to engage in a collective project of self-organization and mutual empowerment: “No one is going to do anything… so we have to do it ourselves” (Salon).
I’ll conclude this brief introduction to the Free Alabama Movement with an outline of their platform, which can be read in full in the manifesto.
WHY WE ARE PROTESTING
1. To Put An End To The System Of Free Labor Within The Alabama Department Of Corrections.
2. To put an end to the inhumane living conditions under which Alabama prisoners suffer, including overcrowding and the warehousing of large amounts of people for no purpose.
3. To abolish life without parole sentences and to overhaul Alabama’s current parole system to provide more deserving people with an opportunity to earn their release from prison.
4. To put an end to arbitrary sentencing practices that has resulted in the targeting of specific race groups.
WHAT WE WANT
1. We want an end to the system of free labor within the Alabama Department of Corrections.
2. We want to end to the inhumane living conditions under which Alabama prisoners suffer, including overcrowding and the warehousing of large amounts of people for no purpose other than to extract free labor.
3. We want control of our resources and the money our families send to us.
4. Reform in youthful offender law.
5. Repeal of the Habitual Offender Act and other laws.
A spoken word performance on the FAM website ends with these powerful words: “Because freeing Alabama is freeing our lives.”
Let me repeat that.
“Because freeing Alabama is freeing our lives.”
To those of us with a stable location within the academy, it might seem like the struggle to free Alabama is a distant struggle which – however inspiring – does not implicate our own freedom. But we would be wrong.
In a nation that incarcerates more people than any other society in world history – a nation that was born in slavery, and that to this day permits slavery and involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime” – a nation that chronically underfunds public education for the sake of punishing, controlling and incapacitating prisoners – none of us are free until all of us are free.
Philosophers have been talking about freedom for centuries. It’s up to us to grapple with the implications of our own intellectual and political commitments in response to the Free Alabama Movement and to other prisoner-led liberation movements. What is freedom? Where is Alabama? Who could we become, as philosophers, if we followed the lead of radical intellectuals behind bars?