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Inmates at a prison in Alabama

Inmates sit on their bunks at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama on March 31, 2016. Inmates across the state went on strike from their jobs in prisons to protest overcrowding and poor conditions and demand broad criminal justice reforms. (Photo: Alabama Governor's Office/Jamie Martin/Flickr/cc)

Demanding Broad Reforms, Thousands of Inmate Workers on Strike at Alabama Prisons

"The DOJ's intervention has done nothing to shift conditions inside Alabama prisons," said one supporter. "They remain incredibly unsafe, inhumane, and exploitative."

Julia Conley

Saying that even a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020 did not solve the "humanitarian crisis" that has gone on for years in Alabama's prison system, thousands of inmate workers are refusing to work this week to demand broad criminal justice reforms and changes to the state's prison conditions.

The work stoppage began Monday after about three months of planning and organizing by inmates, with help from groups including Alabama Prison Advocacy and Incarcerated Families United.

Organizers circulated a "message from the inside" saying the roughly 25,000 incarcerated people in the state are "in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to Eighth Amendment violations." "

This crisis has occurred as a result of antiquated sentencing laws that led to overcrowding, numerous deaths, [and] severe physical injury, as well as mental anguish to incarcerated individuals," said the inmates.

Both Sides of the Wall, an advocacy group run by Diyawn Caldwell, whose husband is incarcerated in Alabama, estimated that 80% of the state's inmates would take part in the strike, disrupting the prison system as guards and other officials take over cooking, trash collection, and other jobs done by inmates.

Alabama's prisons are notoriously overcrowded; a 2019 report by the DOJ found the facilities at 182% capacity. The state's Republican leaders plan to build two more prisons, but Caldwell told The New York Times that the state "can't build themselves out of the crisis that's going on in the prison system."

"We are not saying that we're trying to let every murderer or rapist or even serial killer out of prison," she added. "We're asking to give these people a fighting chance."

Along with the overcrowding and chronic understaffing, inmates face the use of solitary confinement as a "protection" measure, "a high level of violence" including rape, a failure by officials to separate sexually violent offenders from vulnerable inmates, and a lack of "safe and sanitary" living conditions which have reportedly included open sewage, mold, and toxic fumes in kitchen areas.

"The DOJ's intervention has done nothing to shift conditions inside Alabama prisons," said Hannah Riley of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who posted the inmates' list of demands on Twitter. "They remain incredibly unsafe, inhumane, and exploitative."

In addition to major reforms within the state's prisons, organizers are demanding:

  • The repeal of the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which the ACLU has said "unjustly incarcerates too many people for far too long" and has contributed to overcrowding;
  • The creation of a statewide conviction integrity unit to identify inmates who have been wrongfully convicted;
  • The adoption of mandatory parole criteria to guarantee that all those who are eligible for parole are released from prison; and
  • The elimination of life sentences without parole.

Eddie Burkhalter of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice tweeted about reports that officials in the prisons appear to be retaliating against people participating in the labor strike by serving far less food than inmates are usually offered.

The Times also reported that Caldwell's husband and his fellow inmates had "received two sack lunches on Monday and Tuesday, rather than the normal three meals."

On Monday, supporters of the strike assembled outside the Alabama Department of Corrections to give voice to the inmates' demands and protest the state's plan to add more prisons to the dangerous and dysfunctional system.

"A huge salute to the incarcerated folks in Alabama striking against slave labor," said the Woods Foundation, which works to end the death penalty and exonerate wrongfully convicted people. "We stand in solidarity with these brave individuals!"

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