by Alice Salles, October 13th 2016
On September 9, inmates at Holman Prison in Alabama launched a major 12-state prison strike to protest the U.S. prison system’s labor practices and living conditions. The number of participating states could be even higher, as publications such as Democracy Now! have reported the strike happened in at least 24 states.
Regardless of the total number of states, according to Media Matters, virtually none of the most popular American media venues or channels have covered this story.
The Free Alabama Movement, a nonviolent organization focused on “advocating for human rights,” is one of the groups behind this demonstration and has been at the forefront of a campaign to improve prison labor practices since 2012. FAM, as the organization is commonly referred to, initially led the strikes, which were primarily limited to work stoppages. But over time, FAM, along with the Free Ohio Movement and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), added hunger strikes to their campaigns, officially launching the effort on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. That event inspired the movie “Attica,” starring Morgan Freeman, which helped the public learn about what had been going on inside U.S. prisons.
According to the New Yorker, the 1971 campaign was launched as “a modest petition for decency” that eventually blossomed into “a full-fledged takeover — one as surprising to the inmates as to anyone else — that, after four days, ended in a reprisal riot by guards and state police that left thirty-nine people dead.”
Much like the Attica uprising, members of FAM have focused their protests on the “poor living conditions and overcrowding,” but initially, leadership was primarily focused on changing forced labor practices, which include allowing “[c]orporations [to] cut deals with both private and public prisons, [giving] them access to a labor force that has no choice but to work for, say, 20 cents an hour.”
On the official launch day, 24,000 inmates across at least 12 states, including Alabama, Michigan, Texas, South Carolina, and Florida, didn’t show up for work. Following that initial strike, several inmates carried on with the protests “on a rolling basis.” Over time, however, the number of participant strikers decreased. Currently, the “strike [is] apparently winding down,” but if the number of participants is officially confirmed, the FAM-led strike could still be the largest of its kind in U.S. history.
And their actions may have helped to force officials to act — at least on paper.
In Alabama, which has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country, prison guards joined the strikers, launching an “informal labor strike” to bring the government’s attention to overcrowding issues, which create conditions that make prisons unsafe for both guards and prisoners. In order to address this issue, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) responded, and on October 7, it released a statement.
According to the DOJ, officials would begin a “possibly unprecedented” investigation to determine “whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.”
According to the IWOC , inmates across the country “regularly engage in myriad demonstrations of power on the inside,” launching labor and hunger strikes that unfortunately receive little to no attention from the media.
The most recent campaigns have included the “2010 Georgia prison strike, the massive rolling California hunger strikes, [and] the Free Alabama Movement’s 2014 work stoppage,” which, according to the IWOC, “have gathered the most attention.” But as the movement becomes more popular, it also becomes more diverse. Now, IWOC adds, prisoners at “immigrant detention centers, women’s prisons and juvenile facilities” are joining the movement to “demand the end to prison slavery.”
With these strikes, the IWOC explained, these prisoners are not only demanding changes to be implemented. They also claim they are “[ending prison slavery] ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.”
In an interview with Mother Jones, Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright explained that “[t]ypically prisoners are required to work, and if they refuse to work, they can be punished by having their sentences lengthened and being placed in solitary confinement.”
When the strike launched, FAM drafted a list of demands that partially addresses this issue.
The list calls for the reduction of the state prison population, the release of inmates who are mentally ill and who require appropriate care, the establishment of an “Education, Rehabilitation and Re-Entry Preparedness” program, the enforcement of minimum wage laws so prisoners who choose to work are compensated, and the restoration of voting rights.
The DOJ investigation into Alabama prisons is being conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act but officials have not confirmed whether the strike prompted the probe. Nevertheless, FAM’s Pastor Kenneth Glasgow told Buzzfeed the strikes have played an important role:
“I do believe the prison strike that was initiated led and organized by those on the inside of Holman prison is the reason for the DOJ launching the investigation. And I think when they saw that even the officers admitted that the administration was allowing a hostile environment to be created, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
According to the DOJ, many of the department’s past investigations into similar state prison issues resulted in “important reforms.” Only time will tell which reforms, if any, will help to address one of the biggest issues with the U.S. prison system: the drug war.
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