Thousands of people incarcerated in Alabama went on strike last week, protesting inhumane living conditions and a broken parole system that rarely provides the second chance it purports to offer.
Conditions in Alabama violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Department of Justice, which took the rare step in 2020 of suing the state for failing to protect the people in its custody. People incarcerated in Alabama face excessive force from correctional officers, a high risk of death, physical violence and sexual abuse from other prisoners and are forced to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, DOJ wrote in its complaint.
These problems are only getting worse, said Diyawn Caldwell, a strike organizer and the wife of Cordarius Caldwell, a strike participant incarcerated in Ventress Correctional Facility. At least 14 people have been killed in Alabama prisons this year, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, including two people in recent weeks.
A spokeswoman for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) called the strikers’ demands “unreasonable,” and said that plans to build two “mega prisons” using COVID relief funds will improve safety conditions.
Because of an exception to the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery, people in prison are paid almost nothing for their labor. Alabama is one of several states that does not pay incarcerated workers anything for most prison jobs. Yet, incarcerated labor is fundamental to a functioning prison, where the incarcerated prepare meals, do laundry, do general facility maintenance and even build office furniture the state can sell for $1,800 apiece.
Any act of resistance is uniquely dangerous in prison, where staffers have sweeping control over prisoners’ health and safety. Noncompliance in prison, even when peaceful, is often punished with write-ups that can delay release dates, violence and solitary confinement, a recognized form of torture.
The strike participants are well aware of the risks. “The people that I deal with, we don’t care about retaliation,” Caldwell said. “I mean, there’s always going to be casualties in war. And right now, they’re at war for their life and their freedom.”
In response to a detailed list of questions, an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson, who refused to provide their name, claimed all of the prisons are “operational.”
“However, these work stoppages have affected food services given that inmate workers make up a large part of the facility support workforce. Facilities have been on a holiday meal schedule since Monday. This schedule allows for two meals instead of three. This is not a retaliatory measure but logistically necessary to ensure that other critical services are being provided,” the spokesperson continued.
HuffPost spoke with Caldwell this week about what prompted the strike and the unique challenges of organizing a prison strike. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What is your connection to the incarcerated people who are on strike in Alabama prisons?
I am the founder of Both Sides of the Wall, which is a grassroots organization that advocates for incarcerated people and their families. I also have a husband that has been incarcerated for almost 17 years in Alabama.
And is your husband involved in the strike?
Yes, he is.
Have the conditions of confinement changed much during the 17 years that your husband has been incarcerated?
They have gotten worse. They get progressively worse, as the time goes on. The treatment, the food, the hygiene resources, it’s a multitude of things.
Do you know when people first started talking about going on strike?
We first started organizing this around the middle of June.
Was there any specific event that really got that conversation going?
We had a couple of incidents that involved some inmate wives, where their husbands were stabbed and nothing was done about it.
Also, following the DOJ report in 2019 and the lawsuit — things have just gotten progressively worse. The deaths have significantly risen. No one is making parole. We have more people coming out in body bags than on parole. Unless you have a EOS date — which means “end of sentence” — you have a living death sentence. There’s no way out.
That was one thing I wanted to talk with you about. I think when people hear about a prison strike, they might assume it’s primarily about poor conditions in prisons, which sounds like a part of what people are fighting against here. But I was really struck by how much the strike seems to be about people just wanting a reason to have hope and an opportunity to show that they have grown and changed and deserve a second chance.
Right. They’ve taken all the exit and second chance options away from these men and women in Alabama. There’s no hope for parole because the parole board is practically denying everyone and sending them off [with] five [more] years with no explanation, even though these men and women meet the set criteria that has been established.
They practically have a living death sentence, if they don’t have an EOS date, so all the hope is gone. They have nothing to strive for there, they feel like they’re not worthy of a second chance, they’re not given a second chance. And no one has any type of trust or hope in them to come out and reintegrate into society and be a stand-up citizen.
Has your husband ever gone before the parole board?
Yes, we went up in January and he was set off five years, which will ultimately complete his entire sentence of 23 years.
When was he first eligible for parole?
He was eligible back in 2019. However, they passed a new parole bill, which was H.B. 380, that constituted that you do either 15 years or 85% of your time. So that pushed him back until 2021. And at that particular time, the parole board was backed up. So he just went up in January of 2022.
So he already had to wait three years past when he thought he would be eligible for parole, just to be told he had to complete his whole sentence.
What kinds of things did he do to prepare for his parole hearing? I imagine it’s a lot of work and hoops to jump through.
They don’t allow them to represent themselves at their parole hearing. They don’t have any type of electronic or telephonic hearing process where the men and women can stand up and represent themselves. So basically, outside of them filling out — I think it’s about four or five pages for the institutional parole coordinator to evaluate them and place them on the risk assessment, us as family members have to do the remaining part, which is create the parole packet to present to the three-panel board.
What goes into the parole packet?
Letters of recommendation, officer recommendations, work reports, there are there certificates for rehabilitative training processes that they have been through, support letters from family members, friends and members of the community, reentry programs that they have been accepted into, job offers that they have gotten, character statements — just to show their progress from when they came in to where they are now and how they have been rehabilitated.
Going back to June, when you started talking about the strike — how did those conversations take place? How do you move from a place where some people are talking about it to it becoming a reality happening across the state? Particularly in an environment where people who are incarcerated cannot speak to people who are in different facilities and even within the same facilities, there’s probably a fear of retaliation if word gets around to the wrong people.
We used social media as a platform to get the message out. We had conferences and Zooms and chats with family members of the incarcerated. You know, I’ve been doing this for quite some time, so I have resources and contacts with different organizations.
I pretty much took what I know and learn about organizing and put it to use. If you know how to organize, you can organize anything.
When we came to the point that we were going to get the guys involved to do a strike, you know, we have our ways of contacting each other. We set up conference calls to start the organization of that process and brought it all together to make sure that we were on the same page on the inside and the outside and just continue to push it through the people that we know and the public platforms that we have.
The people that I deal with, we don’t care about retaliation, I mean, there’s always going to be casualties in war. And right now, they’re at war for their life and their freedom. So the people that we speak to, they are going to put the word out, regardless of the consequences.
We have one of our freedom fighters that has been placed in segregation … The special forces team that comes in and quote-unquote “regulates” things when they feel like the facility can’t handle it — he was not doing anything and they came and did a body cavity search on him, said that the captain wanted to speak with him. He refused to go because he had not done anything and they have beaten him before and he is partially blind in his left eye and has brain damage. So he did not want to go anywhere off-camera with them. They then handcuffed him, put him on a cart, beat him and placed him in segregation.
He’s still in segregation. He’s currently on hunger strike, protesting his First and Eighth Amendment rights because he contacted media off of the wall phone and they blocked every contact off of his contact list so he can no longer contact anyone. His name is Robert Earl Council, but he goes by Kinetik.
And he had been doing strike work organization?
Yes. Even with my husband, we already discussed — this is not his first prison strike — we discussed what the consequences would be. At some point, you have to stand up for your rights, or you’re going to continue to receive the same treatment. So he understood what we were going into and we’re fully aware of anything that may come with it.
Can you tell me a little bit about the strikes he’s been involved with in the past?
I think it was 2016, the prison strike at Holman, he was involved with that, where they were essentially fighting for the same things. They did make some minor adjustments to some of the demands they were seeking; however, it has kind of fallen back into the same cycle of inhumane treatment, abuse, violence, understaffing — which poses high-risk security issues. I have some videos now where they have no one in their cube manning their dorm. I have videos that show the retaliation that they administer. They have a culture of bullying and retaliation to gain control over the inmate population.
I have videos of rats in some of the bagged lunches they are serving during the strike. I have pictures of the food — I want to stress this — there is a federal ruling saying they’re supposed to get three meals a day, two of those being hot. And they’re serving them two bagged lunches or two tray lunches that are not hot.
Could you talk about the specific power of incarcerated people withholding their labor? How integral is unpaid incarcerated labor to keeping prisons operating?
Basically, the inmate population is who keeps the prison running and functioning. [License plate] tags in the state of Alabama are made through a factory of prison workers. They have a furniture plant, where they build high-end furniture and the state profits off that. They have a sewing plant, where they make all of the clothing that the Department of Corrections’ incarcerated citizens wear. They do all the cooking, the laundry, the yard maintenance, road work. They work out in hotels, restaurants and government buildings. Without them, you know, they’re struggling to even feed the inmate population properly.
They put out a press release saying that the reason why they’re not being fed properly is because the inmates refuse to work. But that is not the burden of the inmates. It is the burden of the state and the commissioner and the Department of Corrections.
Do you have any sense of the impact the strike is having so far? You already mentioned the inability to properly feed people, but have you heard of any other consequences?
They have not been able to provide laundry services. So their laundry has not been done in over 11 days. They have not been able to provide proper medical treatment because they are already short-staffed and they’re not able to escort the inmates back and forth to medical or sick call. They’re just not able to function to the capacity that they’re supposed to be functioning without the inmate population. Even the trash, there’s trash everywhere. They have not passed out hygiene as they should. Pretty much everything has been impacted.
Is there anything I did not ask you about the strike that you think I should be asking?
Well, I would like to say, the governor[’s office] put out a press release out saying that our demands are unreasonable. And they only can be met by legislative changes. Our demands are not unreasonable. And yes, some of them have to go through legislation. However, the governor has the ability to call a special session. Actually, some of these were on the board in the regular session and she just completely overlooked them. Legislators did not get to them. And she did not call a special session to try to attack some of these issues — like the habitual offender law.
How can she say that our demands are unreasonable when she has not sat down with the people, the citizens, to allow us the opportunity to explain the demands that we’re proposing? Instead she just calls them unreasonable off the top. She’s never given us the opportunity to sit down and explain what it is we’re asking for.