Three prisoners—Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council—who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement have spent the last 18 months in solitary confinement. Authorities, unnerved by the protests that engulfed three prisons in the state, as well as by videos and pictures of abusive conditions smuggled out by the movement, say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely.
The prison strike leaders are denied televisions and reading material. They spend at least three days a week, sometimes longer, without leaving their tiny isolation cells. They eat their meals seated on their steel toilets. They are allowed to shower only once every two days despite temperatures that routinely rise above 90 degrees.
The men have become symbols of a growing resistance movement inside American prisons. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to co-operate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that shook the Georgia prison system in December 2010. The strike leaders argue that this is the only mechanism left to the 2.3 million prisoners across America. By refusing to work—a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage—the neoslavery that defines the prison system can be broken. Prisoners are currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Ala. He has been in prison for 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
“We do not believe in the political process,” said Ray, who spoke from the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., and who is serving life without parole. “We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisoners to process beef for patties and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.”
“We are not going to call for protests outside of statehouses,” Ray went on. “Legislators are owned by corporations. To go up there with the achy breaky heart is not going to do any good. These politicians are in it for the money. If you are fighting mass incarceration, the people who are incarcerated are not in the statehouse. They are not in the parks. They are in the prisons. If you are going to fight for the people in prison, join them at the prison. The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike. And we need people to come to the prisons to let guys on the inside know they have outside support to shut the prison down. Once we take our labor back, prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
The three prisoners said that until the prison-industrial complex was dismantled there would be no prison reform. They said books such as Stokely Carmichael’s “Ready for Revolution” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” along with the failure of prison reform movements, convinced them that the only hope to battle back against a prison system that contains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners was to organize resistance. And they find no solace in a black president.
“To say that we have a black president does not say anything,” Ray said. “The politicians are the ones who orchestrated this system. They are either directly involved as businessmen—many are already millionaires or billionaires, or they are controlled by millionaires and billionaires. We are not blindsided by titles. We are looking at what is going on behind the scenes. We see a coordinated effort by the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and political action committees that see in prisons a business opportunity. Their goal is to increase earnings. And once you look at it like this, it does not matter if we have a black or white president. That is why the policies have not changed. The laws, such as mandatory minimum [sentences], were put in place by big business so they would have access to cheap labor. The anti-terrorism laws were enacted to close the doors on the access to justice so people would be in prison longer. Big business finances campaigns. Big business writes the laws and legislation. And Obama takes money from these people. He is as vested in this system as they are.”
In Alabama prisons, as in nearly all such state facilities across the United States, prisoners do nearly every job, including cooking, cleaning, maintenance, laundry and staffing the prison barbershop. In the St. Clair prison there is also a chemical plant, a furniture company and a repair shop for state vehicles. Other Alabama prisons run printing companies and recycling plants, stamp license plates, make metal bed frames, operate sand pits and tend fish farms. Only a few hundred of Alabama’s 26,200 prisoners—the system is designed to hold only 13,130 people—are paid to work; they get 17 to 71 cents an hour. The rest are slaves.
The men bemoaned a lack of recreational and educational programs and basic hygiene supplies, the poor ventilation that sends temperatures in the cells and dormitories to over 100 degrees, crumbling infrastructures, infestations of cockroaches and rats, and corrupt prison guards who routinely beat prisoners and sell contraband, including drugs and cell phones. These conditions, coupled with the overcrowding, are, they warned, creating a tinderbox, especially as temperatures soar. There was a riot in St. Clair in April. There has been a rash of stabbings and fights in the prison. Prisoners have assaulted 10 guards in St. Clair during the last four weeks.
“The worst thing is the water,” said James Pleasant, a St. Clair prisoner who has served 13 years of a 43-year sentence. “It is contaminated. It causes kidney, renal failure and cancer. The food causes stomach diseases. We have had three to four outbreaks of food poisoning in the last four months.”
He said that the prolonged caging of prisoners and the closing of rehabilitation programs, including education programs, guarantee recidivism, something sought by the corporations that profit from prisons. An estimated 80 percent of prisoners entering the Alabama prison system are functionally illiterate.
“Sleeping on a concrete slab is not going to teach you how to read or write,” Pleasant said. “Sleeping on a concrete slab will not solve mental health issues. But the system does not change. It does what it is designed to do. It makes sure people are driven back into the system to work without pay.”
“For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us,” Ray said. “Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect. So they began calling us criminals. When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter. It means he or she is a nigger. It means they deserve what they get.”
Prisons, the men said, have increasingly placed larger and larger financial burdens on families, with the poorest families suffering the most. Prisoners, too, suffer as a result.
“If you don’t get money from your family, your poverty blocks you out from buying items at the commissary or making phone calls,” Council said. “You can’t communicate with your family. If you don’t have someone to send you money you can’t even buy stamps to write home. They [authorities] are supposed to give us two free stamps a week, but I have never seen them do it in my 16 years of incarceration. We pay a $4 medical co-pay if we make a sick call. Every additional medication we receive is $4. If you have a cold and you get something for sinuses, pain meds and something for congestion, that becomes a $16 visit. And if you get $20 from a family member, the state will take $16 off the top to pay for the visit. You end up with $4 to spend at a jacked-up canteen. There are a lot of brothers walking around in debt. …”
“It takes brutality and force to make a person work for free and live in the type of conditions we live in and not do anything about it,” Ray said. “The only way they made slavery work was to use force. It is no different in the slave empire of prisons. They use brutality to hold it together. And this brutality will not go away until the system goes away.”
The men described numerous horrific beatings by guards.
Pleasant said, “They stood me up against the wall [with my hands cuffed behind me]. There were about 10 officers. They started swinging, punching and hitting me with sticks. They knocked my legs out from under me. My face hit the floor. They stomped on my face. They sent me to the infirmary to hide what they did, for 30 days. When I looked in the mirror I could not recognize my facial features. This was the fourth time I was beaten like this.”
I asked the three men, speaking to me on a conference call, what prison conditions said about America. They laughed.
“It says America is what it has always been, America,” said Ray. “It says if you are poor and black you will be exploited, brutalized and murdered. It says most of American society, especially white society, is indifferent. It says nothing has really changed for us since slavery.”