Inmates in at least one Alabama correctional facility are planning a prison-wide work stoppage that threatens to bring production to a halt over pay and court conditions, according to an inmate who spoke to reporters from his cell.
The strike was organized inside St. Clair County Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama by members of the Free Alabama Movement. The group – loosely made up of inmates at St. Clair and other Alabama penitentiaries – alleges that prison jobs initially designed to help fill convicts’ days and give them a sense of pride behind bars have effectively been turned into a kind of slave labor for Alabama officials.
“We decided that the only weapon or strategy...that we have is our labor, because that’s the only reason that we’re here,” Melvin Ray, a St. Clair inmate and the founder of the Free Alabama Movement, told Salon. “They’ve incarcerated people for the free labor.”
Prison jobs often include laundry, kitchen duty, chemical and license plate production, furniture making, carpentry, and a variety of other duties. Since employment is a privilege in most prisons, inmates are often incarcerated for months or even years before they are allowed to swap days filled with little to no activity for time spent working with tools and other inmates.
No specific instances of abuse were included in Ray’s stories, although in 2012, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that allows private prison companies to hire out their labor to prison inmates, who are paid far less than a standard employee.
An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman told AP in 2012 that the law would encourage inmates to learn new skills and prevent them from getting into trouble behind bars. Damon Silvers, the national director of the AFL-CIO unions, warned that the US has a history of using prison labor – which he equated to “quasi-slavery” – to depress wages for employees.
Ray admitted that he is unsure how effective the work protest will be with St. Clair’s 1,300 inmates. However, the Free Alabama Movement did make headlines with a previous strike in early January. Ray claimed that 1,100 of the convicts inside St. Clair participated in the protest, while the state maintained that a small group of inmates refused to work and others were prevented from doing so because of inclement weather conditions.
“We have to get them to understand: you’re not giving up anything,” Ray said of his message to fellow inmates. “You don’t have anything. And you’re going to gain your freedom right here.”
The Free Alabama Movement has sought to spread the word, and perhaps replicate a California prison strike that included tens of thousands of inmates last year, by illegally recording videos and inmates' testimonials on smuggled-in cell phones.
“If a prison goes down for [only] a week, we may not capture another prison,” Ray said. “If a prison goes down for two weeks, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll capture another prison. If a prisoner strike goes down for three weeks...there’s no telling how many prisons might get in.”
Though Ray claimed that correctional officers have separated Free Alabama Movement leaders and segregated some into solitary confinement, the work stoppage does not aim to become a violent demonstration.
“You have rapists, you have all the broad spectrum of criminal conduct and so we can’t incorporate violence, because you know, we’re already behind the eight ball as far as, you know, our image issue,” he told journalist Josh Eidelson. “Violence is what has drawn most of us into the prisons – and that’s what we’re trying to stop.”