The Free Alabama Movement: “Alabama Will Be Ground Central For A Civil Rights Movement Again”

George Lavender

Melvin Ray, spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement

planned work strike by prisoners in Alabama this week stalled” according to outside supporters. It would have been the second work stoppage in Alabama this year, after a similar protest organized by the Free Alabama Movement in January. Earlier this week, The Prison Complex spoke with Melvin Ray, spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement.

What are the aims of the Free Alabama Movement?

We tried to figure out ways to address the human and civil rights issues that we see inside the Department of Corrections; the lack of opportunities for education, the lack of opportunities for rehabilitation, the lack of opportunities for re-entry. After I read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow”, the ideas that had been in my head to start a movement, she just woke that out of me. There is a crisis in the African American community with violence and drugs and lack of resources and lack of skills. There is systematic exclusion once you receive a felony. It’s legal to discriminate against this subculture or this caste. What we’re trying to do is stop that. We want to be the agent of change to stop that. 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. The overcrowding is at 200% of the occupancy rate which is the highest in the nation. The living conditions are deplorable we have videos where you see rats running around in the kitchen. There’s filth. You have raw food we have video of that. We went into the dorms and showed rats running around in the living area, spiderwebs, bugs. Everyone wants the free labor and its a slave system. And we have to stop this slave system because we already went through that institution one time before. 

In the Free Alabama Movement manifesto, you say the business of the movement is freedom”- what does that mean to you? 

What we’re saying is that every person in prison should be afforded the opportunity to earn their freedom. You have thousands of people in this prison who don’t know when they’re going home. And the Free Alabama Movement Bill, our Education, Rehabilitation and Re-entry Bill will provide an answer to every person in prison who is interested in rehabilitating themselves and educating themselves and returning back to the streets. We’re saying (the current) rules do not encourage and motivate people to change those rules encourage people to just lay around and do nothing and wait until their time is up. We want to create an opportunity… to not give up on any human life. Anyone who wants to show that they have something to contribute and that they’re reformed and that they’re ready to go back out there they can. We want to see guys coming into prison, coming to an environment that’s centered in education. The first thing they do when you get inside the Department of Corrections is call you inmate”. Inmate, inmate, inmate,” and that starts the psychological breakdown process of the individual. We want to remove words like that. We want to start addressing people as men and women. We want to re-humanize people and then we want to get them in settings that they can receive the help that they need. If it’s education that’s needed, we want education. If a skill or trade is needed, we want that skill or trade to be mandatory. If life skills are needed we want those life skills to be taught. Then we want to teach these guys responsibility to the community. We played a large part in tearing community down and we want to want to give back. 

Tell us more about the use of free labor in the Alabama Department of Corrections. What kinds of things are people being asked to do and are they being paid any money at all?

You have the kitchen jobs- they work for free. You have the laundry workers- they work for free. You have the maintenance crew- they work for free. You have the yard cleaner- they have to cut grass and pull grass. 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. Separate from that you have the Alabama Correctional Industries and they’ve got thousands of guys making license plates, they run a cattle ranch, they run a catfish farm, they run chemical (plants).

This week the Free Alabama Movement called for a prison work strike, tell us why you chose that tactic?

The reason why we chose a work strike is because you’re dealing with a for-profit prison enterprise that’s based on free labor. There have been hunger strikes, and we feel like the hunger strikes hurt the individual more than they hurt the state. They bring in the media they bring in the attention but it brings a tremendous amount of suffering on the individual and so we had to figure out how to attack this system at the core. And at the core of this system is the free labor so that’s why we chose this tactic. 

What needs to happen before this protest stops? 

The first thing Alabama has to do is to reduce the prison population down to the design capacity. They have a design capacity for about 15, 000, they currently have 30, 000 people. The United States Supreme court, and 9th circuit court federal court out in California just ruled that California’s prisons were unconstitutional at 160%. So that’s the first thing Alabama must do is to get the prison population down to design capacity before the Free Alabama Movement will consider negotiating on the other issues. 

You have created an alliance with the Industrial Workers of the World. Why did you create a relationship with that particular organization? 

We realized that their philosophy is the same as ours. You have to have direct action. You’re not trying to negotiate with the administration or the supervisors or what not. Your tactic, is to target the people who are putting you to work. When I saw that was their strategy I understood that this is what we need, because like I said this is about free labor that’s what we’re here for, make no mistake about it. 

Do you take any inspiration from any other political movement whether they’re inside prison or outside? Are there historical examples you’re looking to in terms of organizing the Free Alabama Movement? 

The most influential movement was the shut down that occurred in the state of Georgia, the December 9th 2010 movement. I hadn’t even thought about a shutdown until I read those articles. At the time it was the largest shut down in the United States history for prisoners. That was one of the most influential initiatives that I ran across. I did study I looked around I took my time to understand what was going on. I figured out the only way we were going to have effect against this system and to stop this tide of sending young children into these systems with life and life without parole sentences, was if we attacked it at the economic core 

One of the main principles of the Free Alabama Movement listed on the website is nonviolence. Why was that important to you and how do you plan to keep this protest non-violent? 

The reason non-violence is so important is because we’re talking about educating and getting people back to the street. No one can say that they’re fit for society if they’re still running around assaulting people, stabbing, people hurting people. We have to show the people in the street that we’re ready to get beyond the violence we’re not going to come out here and destroy anyone or destroy lives. So the first step to that is to show that we can stand up as men and show we can resolve our problems inside prison without resorting to violence. Also it’s a simple matter, we don’t have the weaponry, we don’t have an army to fight the state apparatus. That’s a suicide mission, and I’m not about to lead people into a death march, I’m going to lead people to enlightenment, to freedom. I want to lead people in the right way and non-violence is the right way because that is the way that you show that you’re ready to go back into society. I want people to understand that in prison these prison administrators have a tolerance for violence. In their minds over the years they think violence is acceptable, that violence is inevitable, they don’t have a problem with violence. That mindset has to change. We have to get people to understand you don’t have to have violence in these settings you can sit guys down and educate them, if you invest in education. People can rehabilitate if you invest in that. They resort to violence as quickly as someone on the inside and thats not going to solve issues that we have in this society. We see violence so prevalent in our communities. Those issues can be stopped if they allow us to take the guys in prison who are leaders, who have influence, and who people respect in our communities, if they allow us to change these people and work with these people we could send people back into the communities to stop this tide of violence and destruction that’s going on, and rebuild the family structure that we’ve lost with over one million African American men incarcerated in the United States right now. 

You mentioned the high proportion of African American men who are incarcerated in Alabama. Why do you think this is the case?

They have a systematic approach to keeping the African American men down. The lock up that I’m in right now. I could be in this cell for a year and it’s against the rules for me to get a book. The majority of people in lock up are black. They write these disciplinarys and send them to these segregation units and they continue to dumb us down and deprive us of educational opportunities. 

Is the Free Alabama Movement for African American prisoners only or is it for everyone inside Alabama Prisons? 

It’s for everyone. We’re not excluding anyone from our movement we’re simply addressing the acute issues as we see them. If we see they’re targeting a group of people we provide protection for that group but overall everyone is affected by this system. It doesn’t matter who you are in the Department of Corrections once they get you in here they don’t care if you’re black or whatnot, you’re going to feel the repercussions of what they do. It just so happens 25% of the population in the state of Alabama are black people, 60% of the people that are in Alabama prisons are black so that’s a problem. We can’t say we can’t address the African American issue” because there is no denying that there is a component of what the Department of Corrections is doing (that) directly affects black people. 

In the past when prisoners have organized inside prison facilities around the US they’ve often faced repression and reprisals. Is that something you’re concerned about and what would be the response of the Free Alabama Movement if that happened? 

We can’t go back. We can’t go back from what we’re doing. We’re going to continue to organize. We’re not going to compromise on our issue. We know what’s going on and these videos show what we’re saying and substantiate what we’re saying, so we don’t have to compromise. In the past those movements that you’re talking about, the technology wasn’t there to allow guys to take pictures and film footage so when we got to the courtroom it was their word against the officers word. That’s not the case anymore. Now we have these videos we have this proof. The Free Alabama Movement is teaching young guys to be journalists with their phones. When you see something happen turn that camcorder on. And these officers are not doing anything because they know that that threat is there. So we’re not concerned about that. 

One of the things you say in the manifesto is that the problem isn’t that people don’t know what’s happening in prison, it’s that they just don’t don’t care. Why do you think that is, and what do you think, given that, is the role for people on the outside of prison? 

Prison does not foster independence it fosters dependence. It wants you to be dependent on an officer, it wants you be dependent on the lawyer to get you testify, it wants you to be dependent on the judge to grant your petition. There’s a dependency here and that statement is speaking to the men on the inside of prison saying stop looking for people on the outside to solve problems that you have the power to solve yourself.” I wanted guys to understand what our economic muscle is inside of these prison systems. These people (civil rights organizations) already know what’s going on (in prison), they just don’t care, we have to find people who care. That’s what that statement is all about. We need supporters, we need people to commit to coming down to the state of Alabama. The state of Alabama will be ground central for a civil rights, human rights movement again, but this time we’re addressing prisons. 

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.