Murders, unsanitary conditions and “slavery”: thousands of prisoners on strike in Alabama

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Guards asleep during their services, cells covered in filth, deadly fights: people incarcerated in Alabama, in the southern United States, have been on strike since September 26 to protest against the conditions of detention. To get back to work, inmates want fundamental changes to Alabama’s criminal justice system.

15 state prisons in Alabama are affected by the movement. Videos shared online, as well as testimonies from inmates, attest to deplorable living conditions in Alabama prisons, known to be particularly violent and insecure, and where high rates rapes and murders are particularly high compared to the rest of the United States.

“There are a lot of fights between the prisoners, some of which have resulted in deaths”

Earnest Lee Walker Sr. is currently incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Center, which has been the subject of numerous complaints involving appalling living conditions. Prior to arriving in St. Clair in March 2022, Earnest Lee Walker Sr. was incarcerated at two other facilities – Holman Donaldson and Fountain. He has already served 15 years of a life sentence without parole.

The prison is in a terrible state. The infrastructure is reduced to nothing. It is raining in some cells. It’s infested with vermin. These are not human living conditions.

A video shows the bathroom at a prison in Alabama.

A video shows the filth in a cell in an Alabama prison, with what appears to be blood or excrement smeared on the walls. “I asked for some cleaning supplies and they said ‘No’,” says the person filming the video.

I have often seen the guards sleeping during their shifts, due to the huge understaffing which does not allow them to provide adequate protection or security. Due to this understaffing and overcrowding, dormitories are generally not guarded by an officer. So there are a lot of fights between the inmates. Some of them killed, others seriously injured.

The prison guards leave us pretty much alone. The doors never lock, so I can’t sleep. There is a complete lack of institutional security and control. The guards smuggle us drugs and cell phones to appease us.

In 2020, the United States Department of Justice sued to the State of Alabama and the Department of Corrections, claiming prison system conditions violated the Constitution, including citing “cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet some say that the conditions only got worse.

Alabama’s prison population exceeds 20,000, but the state’s prisons were designed to accommodate them 12,000. While in 2021, more than one in two guard positions were vacant.

At the same time, deaths in the prison system are skyrocketing. At least 13 people were killed in Alabama state prisons in 2022. St. Clair Institution, where Earnest Lee Walker Sr. is currently incarcerated, has highest prison homicide rate in the United States.

Detained on the ground, dead or injured

A 2020 Department of Justice report highlighted the inability of the prison system to preventing violence and sexual abuse among prisoners. On Twitter and TikTok, inmates posted explicit videos showing some of them lying dead or injured on the ground, with no security guards or medical personnel there to help them.

Prison guards have also been accused of violence and ill-treatment. A video shared on Twitter on September 27, 2022 shows guards beating a person in custody.

In Alabama, as in other states, inmates are expected to work, and prisons depend on prison labor for activities such as catering, laundry, cleaning, and running small stores, where detainees can buy food and hygiene items.

In the United States, inmates earn on average 52 cents per hourbut Alabama is one of the states where most inmates are not paid at all.

And this while the incarcerated cannot refuse to work – many of them risk sanctions such as isolation or the denial of certain privileges if they do not do so. Since the beginning of the strike, it is the prison staff who have been forced to do their job. As a result, prisons have reduced meal services, while many inmates and their family members accuse the establishments of “starving” them to end the strike. Weekend visits have also been suspended.

“To pay a man 25 cents an hour is not to pay him”

Another inmate, known as ‘Swift Justice’, is the co-founder of the advocacy group “Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle” (UVOTCJ, in French “Unknown voices of the concrete jungle”). According to him, the working conditions in the prisons are close to slavery.

Up to 90% of US prisons run on inmate labor, whether it’s cooking, laundry, gardening, garbage, maintenance, nursing, janitorial, or labor in the factory.

By stopping this slave labor, some [détenus] shut down the prison engine. She cannot function without them. Alabama’s prison system was in crisis, and these strikes made it a crisis on top of a crisis. Paying a man 25 cents an hour is not paying him. Here, federal law requires everyone to be paid minimum wage, unless you’re a felon.

You don’t make a revolution in a day, but I have observed a change taking place in the slaves themselves. More of them understand that if they do not act for a change, their fate will be to rot in these prisons and perhaps never to see the free world again.

“We don’t go on strike to be agitators, we go on strike because we are tired”

Earnest Lee Walker Sr. has participated in three strikes organized by Alabama prisoners, and he says prisoners’ complaints go far beyond poor conditions and unpaid labor.

This is our third strike, it was planned between February and April this year. It was specifically designed to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of incarcerated citizens in all prisons. It was also made to show the inhuman living conditions in which incarcerated citizens live and to challenge medical care which we believe is substandard.

Finally, the strike was planned specifically to attack the criminal justice system that still uses archaic laws to convict us. We wanted them to repeal the Habitual Criminals Act [NDLR : qui impose la prison à vie pour une personne condamnée pour un crime après trois crimes antérieurs, même si les crimes étaient non violents ou vieux de plusieurs décennies]. I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, with prior non-violent offenses. We’re tired of doing jail time and we’re ready to go home. The laws have changed and we should be able to ask the court to review our sentence.

On September 26, a group of activists organized a protest outside the offices of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in Montgomery, and finally presented a list of nine demands to end the strike. These requests related in particular to changes in sentences and conditional releases. Majority of parole applications in Alabama are deniedwhich greatly contributes to the prison overcrowding.

Other demands relate to changing laws to avoid racial bias in sentencing and the enforcement of criminal laws. Despite making up 28% of the population, blacks in Alabama make up 43% of the prison population and 54% of the state’s population, according to the most recent data from 2017.

The editorial staff of France 24 Observers has contacted the Alabama Department of Corrections for comment, but we have not yet received a response. A spokesperson for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said on September 26 that the demands of the incarcerated were “unreasonable” and that their dismissal would “never happen in the State of Alabama”.

If some detainees returned to work on October 3they are still numerous to continue the strike.

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Murders, unsanitary conditions and “slavery”: thousands of prisoners on strike in Alabama

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