Alabama Prison Work Strike ‘Stalls’ But Wins Support from Wobblies

George Lavender

Alabama prisoners had previously announced plans for a work strike this week to protest unpaid labor, overcrowding, poor conditions, and lack of educational opportunities inside prison.

We have to stop this slave sys­tem,” says Melvin Ray we already went through that insti­tu­tion one time before.” From inside a seg­re­ga­tion cell in St Clair Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty in Melville, Alaba­ma, Ray is try­ing to orga­nize a strike against unpaid prison labor and for bet­ter con­di­tions. Ray and oth­er pris­on­ers involved in the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment” announced ear­li­er this month that they would refuse to work prison jobs this week. It would have been the sec­ond time this year that Alaba­ma pris­on­ers orga­nized a work stop­page; a sim­i­lar strike in Jan­u­ary began at St Clair and spread to at least two oth­er pris­ons in the state. Ray says he has been held in a filthy” seg­re­ga­tion unit since Jan­u­ary 3rd, the eve of the first strike — retal­i­a­tion, he believes, for his part in the protest. 

Speak­ing to The Prison Com­plex on Mon­day, short­ly after the strike was sched­uled to start, Ray said the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment wants to change the over­all approach to what cor­rec­tions is like in the Unit­ed States. And we want to start with Alaba­ma because Alaba­ma has the worst prison sys­tem in the Unit­ed States.”

But so far this week there have been no signs of the threat­ened strike. Sup­port­ers of the pris­on­ers say that author­i­ties have man­aged to stall” the protest. In a state­ment to The Prison Com­plex, Kristi Gates, a spokesper­son for the Alaba­ma Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, said, We have talked to the war­den at the facil­i­ty, and they have gath­ered no intel­li­gence about a pos­si­ble work stop­page. We con­tin­ue to close­ly mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion.” Faulkn­er says oth­er pris­on­ers have told him that pris­on­ers were being threat­ened with soli­tary con­fine­ment if they refused to work. They also had rumors spread that the strike was only being called by Mus­lims, which made many of the Chris­tians not want to par­tic­i­pate.” Reports from pris­on­ers that Ray had been moved to a dry” cell, with­out lights or bed­ding” could not be con­firmed. Reached by phone on Mon­day, St Clair’s war­den, Carter Dav­en­port, declined to com­ment and instead direct­ed all ques­tions to the main Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment, say­ing I’m able to tell you a lot of things, sir, I’m just not going to tell you anything.”

Using pris­on­ers to work for pub­lic and pri­vate indus­tries is com­mon­place in Alaba­ma and through­out the Unit­ed States. The most com­mon jobs are insti­tu­tion­al assign­ments in the prison itself, includ­ing work­ing in kitchens, laun­dry rooms, doing ground main­te­nance, or jan­i­to­r­i­al work. These oper­a­tional jobs keep the pris­ons run­ning, and are either low paid, or, in some states, includ­ing Texas, Geor­gia, and Alaba­ma, not paid at all. A small­er num­ber of pris­on­ers work for Alaba­ma Cor­rec­tion­al Indus­tries, pro­vid­ing goods and ser­vices for the state. St Clair has a vehi­cle restora­tion and chem­i­cal plant.

Pri­vate busi­ness­es also use prison labor. In 2012, Alaba­ma passed a bill allow­ing pri­vate busi­ness­es to con­tract prison labor. The law required pris­on­ers to be paid not less than the pre­vail­ing wage for work of a sim­i­lar nature in the pri­vate sec­tor” but allows the depart­ment to with­hold up to 40 per­cent of that wage for costs inci­dent to the inmate’s con­fine­ment, as the depart­ment shall deem appro­pri­ate and rea­son­able.” The bill was opposed at the time by the AFL-CIO. The union’s nation­al pol­i­cy direc­tor Damon Sil­vers called it a form of qua­si-slav­ery.”

Melvin Ray agrees. You have this tremen­dous pool of free labor that is prob­a­bly some­where around 10,000 peo­ple, and this is how the infra­struc­ture of these prison sys­tems sur­vive.” That’s why Ray says the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment chose a work stop­page instead of a hunger strike. We feel like the hunger strikes hurt the indi­vid­ual more than they hurt the state,” Ray explains. They bring in the media they bring in the atten­tion, but it brings a tremen­dous amount of suf­fer­ing on the indi­vid­ual, and so what we did we had to fig­ure out how can we attack this sys­tem at the core.” Ray says he was inspired by the mass work strike by Geor­gia pris­on­ers in 2010. Work strikes, accord­ing to Ray, were a way for pris­on­ers to use their eco­nom­ic mus­cle” in a non-vio­lent protest, a view shared by the IWW.

It is not the first time that the IWW, or the Wob­blies,” have become involved in prison issues. In 1987, hun­dreds of pris­on­ers at the South­west Ohio Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty signed a peti­tion autho­riz­ing the union to nego­ti­ate on their behalf, but the state’s Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions refused to rec­og­nize the pris­on­ers as employ­ees. It’s the same issue in Alaba­ma, says Faulkn­er. They’re as much part of the econ­o­my as any­one that’s on the oth­er side of that fence.” He says pris­on­ers have tra­di­tion­al­ly been looked down on by the mid­dle class labor unions, you know the unions that focus on mid­dle class issues rather than work­ing class issues. The prison indus­tri­al com­plex is a work­ing class issue, and as such, the unions should be involved in it.”

Since last year, the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment has been using cell­phones to upload pic­tures and more than 60 videos from inside prison. Ray says the group is teach­ing young guys to be jour­nal­ists with their phones.” Videos show, what Ray says, are the deplorable” liv­ing con­di­tions in the prison. There’s filth. You have raw food. … We went into the dorms and showed rats run­ning around in the liv­ing area, spi­der­webs, bugs” he says.

Those videos came as no sur­prise to Ran­dall Mar­shall, legal direc­tor of the Alaba­ma ACLU. Alaba­ma pris­ons are at dou­ble their inmate capac­i­ty,” says Mar­shall, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to do any­thing oth­er than sim­ply ware­house.” Accord­ing to the Alaba­ma Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions, the state’s prison facil­i­ties are designed to house just 13,318 peo­ple. In Jan­u­ary, the in house pop­u­la­tion” was 25,102. Mar­shall says while there are some con­sti­tu­tion­al rights for pris­on­ers, it’s extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult for pris­on­ers to orga­nize protests.”

Apart from demand­ing an end to over­crowd­ing and unpaid labor, the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment is also push­ing a draft piece of leg­is­la­tion, Alaba­ma’s Edu­ca­tion, Reha­bil­i­ta­tion, and Re-entry Pre­pared­ness Bill,” as a mod­el for state leg­is­la­tors. The bill calls for media access to pris­ons, lim­its on the sen­tenc­ing of peo­ple younger than 22, and increased oppor­tu­ni­ties for parole. This Sat­ur­day, the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment and IWW will hold a ral­ly and can­dlelit vig­il in Birm­ing­ham in sup­port of the pris­on­ers. The state of Alaba­ma will be ground cen­tral for a civ­il rights, human rights move­ment again,” says Ray, but this time we’re address­ing prisons.”

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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