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They carried out a historic three-week labor strike and brought the neglect of the country’s worst prisons to national attention.
In September, thousands of inmates in Alabama’s state prisons went on a labor strike, compelled by truly appalling living conditions. The state’s prisons are the deadliest in the country, and a US Department of Justice investigation revealed that Alabama “routinely violates the constitutional rights” of inmates, failing to protect them from homicide and sexual assault, among other abuses. This year, Alabama’s parole rates have been staggeringly low, at just 10 percent—meaning the state’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons are operating at more than 160 percent capacity.
“Those incarcerated only see one way out of prison: in a body bag,” Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society, a group that worked with the strikers, told the Vera Institute of Justice.
In response to this continued mistreatment, inmates went on strike from their service posts in laundry, maintenance, food service, and janitorial work—all jobs for which they receive no pay. Local news outlets described the work stoppages, which encompassed all 13 of the state’s men’s prisons, as “unprecedented.” The prisoners’ demands included adequate medical and mental health treatment, creating conviction integrity units to prevent false convictions, developing consistent standards for mandatory parole, streamlining medical furloughs and elder release procedures, and reducing minimum sentences for young offenders. The Republican governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, called the strikers’ demands “unreasonable.”
What’s really unreasonable, though, is that the state responded to the strikes by canceling weekend visits and reducing the number of daily meals from three to two, apparently due to strain on staff resources from the work stoppages. Without the unpaid prisoner labor force—slave labor by another name—preparing three meals daily for nearly 23,500 people was virtually impossible. Inmates referred to the reduction in meal service as “bird feeding,” an alleged attempt to starve strikers into submission.
“It makes no sense for us to continue to contribute to our own oppression,” one striker told the nonprofit media collective Unicorn Riot. “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.”
— (UVOTCJ) Unheard Voices O.T.C.J. (@SwiftJusticeIn1) October 6, 2022
The continued atrocities Alabama’s inmates endure are part of a well-known pattern of state brutality. In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained thousands of photographs from the state’s deeply troubled St. Clair Correctional Facility depicting gruesome scenes of brutalized and murdered prisoners. In one photo, a message was painted on the wall in an inmate’s blood: “I ask everyone for help,” it read. “Mental Health won’t help.”