Lawsuit: Alabama Is Denying Prisoners Parole to Lease Their Labor to Meatpackers, McDonalds

No parole if you’re still profitable.

Kim Kelly

Lakeira Walker, one of 10 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections, was released from prison after fifteen years. During her sentence, her labor was exploited for profit by a number of big companies. Photo by Nitashia Johnson

Working in the freezer at Southeastern Meats, a meatpacking facility based in Birmingham, Ala., was the worst job I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Lakiera Walker tells In These Times. Her 12-hour shifts were spent inside a refrigerated building as cold as 30 or 40 degrees, and she had to beg or borrow warm clothes from her friends and family because the employer didn’t provide any.

She couldn’t even take solace in the idea that she was saving up money for her future, because the prison where she spent the rest of her waking hours was taking a 40% cut on top of various fees. As an incarcerated worker, Walker’s time was not her own — even when she was being forced to use it to make money for private employers and the state of Alabama.

Walker, 36, is one of 10 plaintiffs in Robert Earl Council aka Kinetik Justice v. Kay Ivey, a landmark class-action lawsuit challenging what they and their supporters describe as an unconstitutional forced labor scheme in Alabama’s state prisons. They allege the state’s disproportionately Black incarcerated population is being intentionally exploited for profit. The 126-page complaint was filed in the middle district court of Alabama on Dec. 12, 2023, by the 10 currently or formerly incarcerated workers, the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) Mid-South Council, and the Woods Foundation. The suit describes how incarcerated Alabamians are forced to work for free in prison and paid extremely low wages to work for hundreds of private employers — including meatpacking plants and fast-food franchises like McDonald’s — as well as more than 100 city, county and state agencies. And it alleges that the state keeps the scheme going by systematically denying parole to those eligible to work outside jobs.

Prison labor is big business in the United States. According to a 2022 ACLU report, Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, incarcerated workers save prisons more than $9 billion a year in operational costs and earn them more than $2 billion in sales of goods and services, while the prisoners make pennies per hour. They have no say over what types of work they perform or how they’re compensated for that labor, and a survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 76% of the nation’s roughly 800,000 incarcerated workers are unable to refuse to work without punishment or retaliation. 

None of this is unique to Alabama, but Alabama is one of only seven states that pays nothing to prisoners who work to keep its prisons running. The Yellowhammer State also has a particularly rotten reputation for how it treats its incarcerated population, with a notoriously overcrowded, dirty, dangerous and corrupt prison system. The prisoner mortality rate is five times higher than the national average.

For these reasons and more, the plaintiffs I spoke with told me that, once word spread that a class action was brewing, they jumped at the chance. There is a long list of defendants, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, three members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm and Transportation Director John Cooper, as well as the cities of Montgomery and Troy, Jefferson County, and a number of private employers, including Gemstone Foods, Progressive Finishes and McDonald’s. The suit charges them with violating Alabama’s State Constitution — which, as of 2022, bans slavery and involuntary servitude—as well as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

In the case of the government officials, they’re also accused of conspiring to increase the size of the Alabama prison population — which is predominantly Black — through the discriminatory denial of parole so the state can continue profiting from forced labor. “[Prisoners] have been entrapped in a system of convict leasing’ in which incarcerated people are forced to work, often for little or no money, for the benefit of the numerous government entities and private businesses that employ’ them,” the suit charges.

In Alabama, that charge comes with ugly historical baggage. Convict leasing — a practice of forced penal labor prevalent in the post-Emancipation South (in which incarcerated men were leased” to private employers) — was a massive state revenue driver. Thanks to the Black Codes, a racist program to criminalize petty offenses both real and imagined, Black people were locked up at a massively disproportionate rate to their white neighbors. Many were then sent to work on plantations to fill the labor gap left by Emancipation.

The plantation owners, as best they could, wanted Blacks to return to the same place as they had been as slaves,” historian David Oshinsky writes in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. Other prisoners were leased” out to work in coal mines, which was as good as a death sentence.

In the case of the government officials, they’re also accused of conspiring to increase the size of the Alabama prison population—which is predominantly Black—through the discriminatory denial of parole so the state can continue profiting from forced labor.

During the 1891 Coal Creek War in Tennessee, striking white miners freed more than 100 Black convict laborers who had been shipped in to act as strikebreakers. But such bright spots were few and far between. The more Black people who were imprisoned and forced to work, the more money they brought in for the state’s benefit. (Is this sounding familiar, dear reader? It should.) By 1898, convict leasing fees made up 73% of Alabama’s revenue.

Convict leasing was formally abolished in Alabama in 1928, but prison labor has remained a significant source of income for the state. Alabama has long been one of the poorest states in the country (in 2022, its poverty rate was 16.2%). It also collects less in property taxes per resident than any other state, with rates that are enshrined in the state constitution and thus extremely difficult to change. This arrangement encourages the state’s conservative leaders to look for money elsewhere.

According to the lawsuit, Alabama reaped a $450 million benefit from forced prison labor in 2023 alone. The state takes a 40% cut of the gross earnings of all incarcerated workers laboring for private employers. It also prof its from goods manufactured by incarcerated workers. The Alabama Correctional Industries website boasts a wide range of products sold to governmental entities within the State,” including executive chairs” and a judge’s bench, and even operates a showroom in Montgomery, Ala. A lovely white gazebo purchased for the governor’s mansion was made by incarcerated workers. Its current occupant, Kay Ivey, is named as a primary defendant.

Guards supervise a group of convict-lease prisoners in Birmingham, Ala. BIRMINGHAM PUBLIC LIBRARY ARCHIVES
Convict-lease prisoners at the Banner Mine in Alabama. BIRMINGHAM PUBLIC LIBRARY ARCHIVES

The symbolism is not lost on the plaintiffs: In those same chairs prepared by [prisoners’] hands, the ones who benefited sit on the leather and deny them freedom,” plaintiff Alimireo English tells In These Times.

Some of that windfall also lands on Alabama’s state and county agencies, which have saved a fortune in wage costs by extracting labor from incarcerated workers instead of paying hired personnel. Since 2018, more than 100 public employers have benefited from cut-rate labor provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).

Lakiera Walker worked for Jefferson County doing roadwork for approximately two years and was paid a $2 daily wage to handle large trash removal (including a Jacuzzi). She found out that the non-incarcerated workers on her team were making $10 per hour for the same job. One day, the lawsuit alleges, Walker’s boss attempted to coerce her into unwanted sexual activity; when she refused, he wrote her up on a disciplinary offense for refusing to work.” She was then sent to work unpaid in the prison’s kitchen, and when her family called the commissioner and the warden to demand something be done, no action was taken.

It was basically just slipped under the rug,” Walker says.

Lakiera Walker worked for Jefferson County doing roadwork for approximately two years and was paid a $2 daily wage to handle large trash removal (including a Jacuzzi). She found out that the non-incarcerated workers on her team were making $10 per hour for the same job.

During Walker’s time working at Southeastern Meats, she technically started at $12 per hour, which she believes is the same as her non-incarcerated coworkers, but after the Alabama prison system got through with her check, she was only bringing home about $100 in her weekly paycheck, which works out to less than $2 per hour. ADOC deducts 40% of the check as a fee” and then often adds other fees, such as a $5 transportation fee” to take workers to and from work.

After Southeastern Meats, Walker was sent to Burger King, where she worked right up until her release date. Once Walker left state custody, she called to collect her final check, but found it had already been sent to ADOC. After that, according to her lawyer, no one knows what happened to it. So I’m coming out of prison with $10 and not the check that I worked hard for,” Walker explains. You don’t have to take 40% from me. I’m at home!”

During Walker’s 15-year incarceration, she held a litany of unpaid jobs throughout the prison itself, too, including in the kitchen, housekeeping and healthcare. She even provided hospice care to dying patients. The nurses really weren’t interested in taking care of sickly or terminally ill people, so they would get the inmates to do it,” Walker says. She says she was regularly required to work seven days a week, and she often had to work two shifts a day.

None of these prison jobs were paid, and quitting or refusing work was not a viable option. You can’t say, Hey, I can’t go to work today,’” Walker explains. You would go to segregation, which was solitary confinement. … People were so tired and just hopeless at that point, they would kind of welcome solitary confinement, just to have a break.”

Lakiera Walker, a plaintiff in the class-action Kinetik Justice v. Kay Ivey against Alabama’s prison labor system, poses with her son. Other plaintiffs include (from left to right) Arthur Ptomey, Robert Earl Council (aka Kinetik Justice), Lanair Pritchett, Lee Edward Moore Jr., Jerame Cole, Michael Campbell, Alimireo English, Frederick McDole, and Toni Teare Cartwright. Photo courtesy of Lakeira Walker / Images via ADOC

Walker did finally make it home after all those years of forced labor, but many others are still trapped in the system. Another plaintiff, Lee Edward Moore Jr., a genial 51-year-old Black man, has been in ADOC custody since 1997. He is currently incarcerated at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., and was most recently denied parole in 2022. It was his fourth time being denied since 2009. He cannot for the life of him understand why.

His story spans decades and has seen him change prison careers” many times. One of his first jobs at Holman was refitting the execution chamber; he remembers tearing out the old electric chair when the prison was switching over to lethal injections. As a highly skilled worker, he is constantly in demand, and the lawsuit describes how, over the years, he has been asked to do plumbing, heating and air conditioning installation and maintenance, installation of phone lines, electrical work, and all manners of construction and yard work” projects for the prison. Like Lakiera Walker, Moore has been called down to the healthcare unit to help clean and provide care for fellow prisoners. For the past decade, Moore has also been asked to work on projects outside of the prison, during which he is typically left unsupervised; he’s even personally remodeled wardens’ own state-provided houses.

They trust me; they know I’m not going to try to escape,” Moore explains.

His latest job has taken him back beyond the prison walls; now, Moore cuts the grass outside of death row.

Members of the Tennessee Student Solidarity Network gather outside Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility on March 2 for a solidarity protest with the Free Alabama Movement. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Student Solidarity Network

Moore has not been paid a single cent for any of it, the lawsuit alleges, or received any type of tangible benefit. The biggest perk he’s ever received was a bunk in a smaller, less violent dorm reserved for certain low-risk workers. That, at least, was something; throughout our conversation, he’s clear about his desire to avoid the violence that notoriously permeates ADOC. A 2019 Department of Justice report stated that conditions in Alabama’s prisons were so egregious that they violated prisoners’ constitutional right to be protected against cruel and unusual punishment.

When I ask Moore if he ever refused to work, he explains he did feel he had the option, but generally prefers keeping busy — and staying safe. I just do it because it’s so violent on the inside here,” he says. I try to keep away from the trouble. I’m trying to go home, but I never have the opportunity.”

That element is the strangest part of his story. Moore’s reputation among the prison’s officials is squeaky-clean — as his lawyer interjected during our call, Lee has the cleanest file I’ve ever seen, and he’s been in some of the toughest prisons in Alabama” — and Moore is clearly a low-risk, highly motivated individual. As the lawsuit reads, There is no reasonable argument that he poses a threat to public safety as he has been working long hours daily since he was first incarcerated, without pay, for ADOC, both inside and outside prison walls without incident.” Moore has paying construction jobs waiting for him once he does go home, and a wife and family desperate to see him. His step-daughter is a parole officer, and several of Moore’s family members are in law enforcement. 

The wardens at Holman continually recommended Moore for parole.

And yet, Moore’s custody level has not budged. He has not been allowed to participate in a work-release program, which would at least provide a paycheck. And his latest request for a sentence reduction was denied.

Now, Moore won’t get his next chance to come home until 2027. That’s why he joined the class action. We’re being treated like slaves in here,” he says. We just sit here. It’s hopeless. Trying to go for parole, there’s no hope.”

In 2015, the state of Alabama reacted to reports of dangerous overcrowding within ADOC — prisons were at 195% capacity — by enacting measures intended to parole more people while hiring more parole and probation officers, plus an effort to reduce recidivism by investing in community-based substance use disorder and mental health treatment centers. The reforms initially were a success: They reduced the overcrowding and nearly equalized parole outcomes between Black and white prisoners.

“We’re being treated like slaves in here. We just sit here. It’s hopeless. Trying to go for parole, there’s no hope.”

But after far-right Gov. Kay Ivey came to power in 2017, progress stopped — and began rolling back. Ivey immediately took pains to curb parole grants. The lawsuit alleges that Ivey forced parole boards to disregard the evidence-based objective standards” for parole decisions that had increased parole grants prior to 2018. The next year, the parole grant rate fell from 53% to 31%. It continued to plummet, and the gap between Black and white prisoners’ likelihood of being granted parole widened. Between 2020 and 2022, Black prisoners were denied parole at twice the rate of white ones.

By 2022, the parole rate was 11% overall and only 7% for Black prisoners — meaning that 93% of parole-requesting Black prisoners were denied.

That’s what happened to Alimireo English, a charismatic 48-year-old Black man who, according to a judge, should not be in prison right now. It’s a convoluted story, but he was taken into ADOC custody in October 2020 after his parole from a previous conviction was revoked over new misdemeanor charges. A jury acquitted him of those charges on Nov. 8, 2021, and a judge ordered his release.

But instead of being back home with his family, at church with his faith community, or visiting his eldest son in New York, English is at the Ventress Correctional Facility in Clayton, Ala. His case did not come before the parole board until November 28, 2023, more than two years after he’d already been acquitted, but he was denied anyway. His next parole date is November 2024.

They gotta keep me for another year until they can find somebody else on the street that they can pull back in and take my place,” English tells me. If they can’t replace you, they don’t let you go.”

His continuing incarceration has come as a heavy shock to English, who spent the time since his 2017 release staying out of trouble and building a better life for himself and his loved ones. You don’t send a man back to prison when he’s got his whole life straight,” English says. My parole officer said in my hearing, [they] never had a problem with me prior to this incident. That should have been a red flag right there.”

It is even more jarring given how he spends his time at his unwelcome new home. English works as a dorm representative for the facility’s Faith Dorm, where he is on call 24 hours a day, seven days per week. He is responsible for the safety and well-being of 190 incarcerated men, many of them elderly or medically vulnerable. He handles custodial duties and maintenance, screens dorm visitors and is also the first responder for drug and health emergencies. In his scant free time, he runs a therapy and counseling group for his fellow prisoners. He consistently works 12 to 15 hour days and, for most of the week, he is the sole individual in charge of the dorm; a retired prison chaplain comes in to assist him a few times weekly, but otherwise English is not supervised by any corrections personnel.

As the lawsuit highlights, Since Mr. English has been in this position, the Faith Dorm has had no fights, deaths, or overdoses.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team estimates that ADOC saves roughly $200,000 a year by not having a corrections officer in that one dorm. Meanwhile, English is paid nothing. The inmates basically run the prison, but the officers are getting compensated for it,” English says. The wages the inmates are paid for their work hasn’t changed since 1927.”

Several of the plaintiffs I spoke to also mentioned institutional need,” a specific designation that plaintiffs have reported is added to certain prisoners’ files to signify their utility to their current facility. According to Walker and her lawyer, institutional need is yet another trick used by the ADOC to keep especially useful incarcerated workers from leaving, so the state can continue benefiting from that person’s skills. It calls to mind Moore’s construction skills and English’s high level of responsibility.

Most people, it stops them from going home or making parole because it says that we need you more in prison than the world needs you in society,” Walker explains. This lady, her name is Lisa Smith, she’s been in prison about 30 years, and every time she comes up for parole, regardless of her crime, she’s an institutional need. She can fix anything in the prison — she can probably build a prison — but she’s not getting paid. Sometimes they won’t even call in a free world contractor because she knows what to do. It’s looking bleak that she will ever make it out of prison, because they need her there.”

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Alimero English, Lee Moore and Lakiera Walker see this lawsuit as a chance to speak up for themselves and the thousands of other currently or formerly incarcerated workers in ADOC who have felt freedom slip through their fingers.

The ADOC have institutionalized inmates to the point where they’ve been in captivity so long that their hope has been completely extinguished,” English says. And their fight to be released from this has turned into just an uncomfortable routine of prison life until they die.”

With Robert Earl Council aka Kinetik Justice v. Kay Ivey, they have found a new spark of hope — and some new allies. The 10 plaintiffs have been joined by two heavyweight Southern labor unions, the USSW and the RWDSU Mid-South Council. It is uncommon to see major unions speaking out so explicitly about prison labor and the plight of incarcerated workers, but USSW and RWDSU have been unequivocal in their support.

We’re proud to join this lawsuit because we are horrified and outraged by the system of forced labor in Alabama state prisons that has kept Black incarcerated people trapped in prison,” Eric Winston, a USSW member and a cook at the Brookdale Durham assisted living center in North Carolina, tells In These Times. Across the South, we know that when racism exists anywhere, it hurts workers everywhere.”

RWDSU represents thousands of workers in Alabama, predominantly in the state’s poultry plants, and also represented the workers who spearheaded the first major attempt to organize an Amazon warehouse, in Bessemer, Ala., in 2021.

Beyond the myriad social, political and economic justice issues that underpin prison labor, the proliferation of forced labor also hurts unions’ ability to organize workers and depresses wages and working conditions for all workers.

The USSW represents fast food workers throughout the South, while RWDSU counts many meatpacking workers among its members. If employers like McDonald’s, Southeastern Meats, KFC or Progressive Finishes (an automotive powder-coating company where plaintiffs Michael Campbell and Arthur Ptomey currently work) are able to hire incarcerated workers, pay them the bare minimum, and work them to the bone because those workers cannot call out or quit, there’s precious little incentive for them to hire outside workers.

Lakiera Walker poses with her son. Photo by Nitashia Johnson

Because of a 1977 Supreme Court decision, incarcerated workers in the United States — including those in ADOC’s work release program — are legally prohibited from unionizing.

The Supreme Court decision barring incarcerated workers from unionizing has not stopped organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) from organizing labor actions, strikes and protests against prison slavery, or individual prisoners from finding their own ways to dissent. The Abolish Slavery National Network is working to eliminate involuntary servitude” exemptions for prison labor from state constitutions. It succeeded in Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont in 2022, and eight states are considering legislation in 2024.

One of the founders of FAM, Kinetik Justice, is a plaintiff in the Alabama lawsuit. He has helped organize and lead several high-profile nationwide prison strikes since 2016. He’s been in ADOC custody for the past 29 years, and he has been repeatedly punished, harassed and tortured for his work organizing against forced labor. According to The Appeal, he spent 54 months in solitary confinement between 2014 and 2018 and has been repeatedly sent back into the hole. As he told Democracy Now! in 2016, We understood our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated from the prison system, therefore we began organizing around our labor and used it as a means and a method to bring about reform in the Alabama prison system.” He is no stranger to filing lawsuits on his own and his fellow prisoners’ behalf against ADOC, so it is fitting that this landmark class action suit bears his name.

On Dec. 21, 2023, six of the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction demanding that Alabama return to its pre-2018, pre-Ivey parole process, and calling on state officials to end the current system of forced prison labor and release individuals qualified for parole. The harms that plaintiffs are suffering from being unjustly denied parole are extensive and irreparable,” the motion reads. There is no remedy for that lost time or liberty.”

Moore put it more plainly: I want to go home. I don’t want to stay in here. We need to stand up for something.”

“I want to go home. I don’t want to stay in here. We need to stand up for something.”

A happy ending remains out of reach for most of the plaintiffs, at least for a little while longer, but at least one has found some peace outside ADOC. When I spoke with Lakiera Walker, the bubbly 36-year-old had left Alabama and had just started a new job as a receptionist. She feels like she lucked out.

It’s hard for us to come out here and get a job or to find somewhere to stay, because we weren’t able to save any money,” Walkers says. They worked us for years and took all of our pay. … [And then] people look at your background and say, Oh, she was a criminal.’ But we’ve worked all these years in prison doing all this work. We have the drive, we have a great work ethic. … If we’re good enough to work at these free-world jobs, why are we not good enough to work in society?”

She tells me she manifested this lawsuit and this chance to finally speak out. “[A] lot of us were raised to work,” Walker says. That’s not the issue. It’s the injustice in things that go on behind the walls that no one knows. [It’s about not] being held to do slave work. It’s about being appreciated and being valued. Because at the end of the day, we’re human.”

Note: Since the print publication of this story, Burger King was dropped as a defendant in the suit. The online version has been updated.

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Kim Kelly is an independent labor journalist and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Asbestos killed her grandfather, a former steelworker, and she hopes to help prevent others from losing their own loved ones to occupational disease.

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