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Home » Incarcerated Workers Across Alabama Strike, Demanding Changes to Parole and Sentencing Laws
As Alabama’s longest-ever miners’ strike drags on at Warrior Met Coal after 18 months, thousands of jailed workers at the state’s prison facilities are on strike for the second week, refusing to report to their usual jobs as cooks and cleaners. They are protesting poor conditions at Alabama Department of Justice (ADOC) facilities and calling for changes to the state’s probation and sentencing laws.
“The message we’re sending is the courts have closed us, parole board has closed us,” a strike organizer calling itself Swift Justice told a reporter for an independent news site
Unicorn Riot. “This company shut us down a long time ago. So if that’s the case and you don’t want us to go back into society, you can basically run those facilities yourself.”
The miserable conditions in the state’s prisons also make them particularly dangerous. According to a 2020 lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice, Alabama’s prison system “fails to provide adequate protections from prisoner-to-prisoner violence and prisoner-to-prisoner sexual abuse, does not provide safe and sanitary conditions, and exposes prisoners to undue exposure to violence by prison staff.” ”
“It makes no sense that we continue to contribute to our own oppression,” said Kinetik Justice, another striking prisoner
Unicorn Riot. “We fund our own incarceration through our free labor and spend every penny we get in the canteens and so on. It is our money and our family’s money that is being used to keep us so locked down and oppressed.”
Organizers have compiled a list of demands aimed primarily at Republican Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama legislature. These demands include:
Establishing binding parole criteria to guarantee parole to all beneficiaries Repeal Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, which, among other things, mandates tougher punishment for those with prior felony convictions Abolition of life sentences without parole Ensuring that eligible individuals are given “good time” – incentive time saved from a penalty earned through good behavior Establish a national conviction integrity unit to investigate possible wrongful convictions UNBROKEN LINE TO SLAVERY
The strike has its roots in years of internal organizing. In 2016, the Free Alabama Movement successfully conducted a 10-day statewide strike aimed at highlighting how the 13th Amendment has allowed the institution of slavery to change despite its abolition on paper. (The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crimes of which the party was duly convicted.”) This strike involved at least 40 facilities in 24 states.
Swift and Kinetik argue that there is an unbroken line stretching from the institution of slavery as it existed in the antebellum era to the modern industrial complex of prisons.
“Alabama wants its slaves to remain passive and obedient to continue reaping millions of dollars in profit from our backs and blood,” Swift said in an Oct. 1 press release.
Politicians and administrators are always finding new ways to make a system that is widely condemned for its brutality even more brutal. For example, the parole board has drastically reduced the grant of parole; In 2017, 46 percent of applications were rejected, but in 2021 that number rose to 84 percent. The average for the decade leading up to 2021 was 37 percent, with the drastic increase partly due to the board very often refusing to follow its own guidelines, opting instead to keep more people locked up, despite the Justice Department found prisons to be unconstitutionally overcrowded.
While the criminal justice system disproportionately targets communities of color at every point in the process, racial disparities in parole denial still widen; a
Montgomery Advertiser Article reports, “Scholarships for black applicants are declining much faster than white applicants in 2020 and 2021.” While officials deny many a remaining hope of ever seeing the outside world again, inmates need to focus on the trauma the prison system is causing. STRIKE BREAKING
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ADOC’s scab tactics are extreme. For example, where the hedge funds that own Warrior Met Coal have made it clear that they intend to metaphorically “starve out” the miners at Brookwood, ADOC is betting on actual starvation. In addition to adopting a so-called “holiday meal plan” of just two meals at facilities across the state, prisoners say those meals consist of trays that contain no hot food and limited nutrients. Numerous images of objects such as two “sandwiches” consist only of
cold slices of bread and cheese have been making the rounds on social media.
ADOC claims this is only because they lost most of their supply of free forced labour, although it is debatable how much extra labor would be required to serve a larger scoop of porridge or put more slices of bread on a tray.
Even as the famine continued, prison officials have forced inmates to do scab labor. According to the prisoners, if someone on parole (i.e. someone who is allowed to work outside the prison and returns after their shift is over) refuses to cross the metaphorical picket line, they risk being immediately stripped of their parole status and transferred to Donaldson Prison becomes notorious — even by Alabama standards — for its extreme violence.
A person brought in from the North Alabama Work Release Center to take the place of striking Alabama prisoners at Limestone told Kinetik his story on video and expressed solidarity with the strikers; Not even two hours after the video was posted online, the person who took the footage, Kinetik, was beaten by guards and placed in solitary confinement — not for the first time. Even for those prepared to face the violence of guards and lose their hard-won work release status, the intense isolation of the people inside makes it difficult to even find out about the strike.
Thousands of people have built solidarity in these highly unlikely conditions. The labor movement depends on us all realizing that there is more that unites us than divides us, and that there are far more of us willing to fight for our rights than bosses and oppressors.
“No matter where we are,” Swift said Saturday, “we are people.”
Haley Czarnek is the national director of Law Students for Climate Accountability and serves as a fellow for United Campus Workers Alabama and as co-chair of the Labor Committee of the Birmingham Democratic Socialists of America.