Prisons are sources of profit in the United States—and incarcerated activists in Alabama are leveraging their economic power to amplify their calls to end the violent conditions they face daily in facilities run by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
From January 1 until the end of the month, ADOC prisoners are going on strike from their prison jobs, work which they say “amounts to slavery.” They’re also boycotting companies that make a killing off of “exploitation” and “price gouging” through telecommunications service monopolies in prisons, as Freedom Alabama Movement (FAM), an organization led by incarcerated activists, announced.
As of New Year’s Day, at least 11 Alabama prisoners in segregation at Kilby Correctional Facility were also on a hunger strike to express their solidarity.
Dubbed a “30-Day Economic Blackout” by FAM, the boycott is making a range of demands. The top three include decarceration for public health amid the COVID-19 pandemic; ending corrections staff’s “culture of corruption and brutality”; and addressing drug use inside the facility as “a health and public safety issue.” FAM did not immediately respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
Alabama state prisoners are vulnerable to COVID due to their confinement in spaces holding more people than they’re designed to hold. FAM is demanding that ADOC reduce its bloated prison population of more than 15,000 to its intended capacity of 9,882.
The consequences of overcrowding have been devastating. As of December 28, the deaths of 54 people incarcerated in Alabama were attributed to COVID, and that number is likely an underestimate.
The most recent ADOC population data, logged at the end of September, suggests a rate of 28 deaths per 10,000 prisoners—a figure almost three times that of the state’s overall death rate (10 per 10,000). It also rivals the country’s other leading mortality rate in a state prison system, that of Arkansas (29 per 10,000).
Abuse and Negligence
FAM is also calling for reforms to end abuse and negligence by ADOC staff. The group suggests “creating a database to document and track every use of force incident by an ADOC employee,” and that staff members “with a history of excessive use of force or brutality, or other unethical conduct must be terminated immediately.”
The severity of ADOC conditions has been confirmed by the US Department of Justice. In an April 2019 report, the agency’s Civil Rights Division, along with Alabama federal prosecutors, alleged that ADOC conditions amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment by failing to protect prisoners from violence.
In July 2020, the DOJ again made allegations of Eighth Amendment violations, claiming that “prisoners are subjected to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.” By the end of the year, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against ADOC for failing to ameliorate the unlawful conditions—with some of them, like overcrowding, having worsened since DOJ investigations began in 2016.
“The State of Alabama is deliberately indifferent to the serious and systemic constitutional problems present in Alabama’s prisons for men,” wrote the DOJ in its December 6 complaint. “The United States has determined constitutional compliance cannot be secured by voluntary means.”
Drug Use Inside ADOC
Third on FAM’s list of demands is a public health response to drug use inside ADOC’s facilities. Calling for state prison officials to acknowledge “the drug epidemic that is engulfing ADOC,” and to “take IMMEDIATE action to address drug proliferation as a health and public safety issue,” FAM’s press release identifies drug use as “a major factor contributing to deaths and the overall humanitarian crisis gripping ADOC.”
Incarcerated drug users, according to the DOJ’s 2019 report, are subjected to “severe violence” and preventable drug-related harms. Because drug criminalization leaves prisoners with few formal avenues for settling transactions, “the inability to pay drug debts has led to beatings, stabbings and homicides,” the report continued.
Additionally, some “prisoners on drugs often ‘wig out'”—likely the result of synthetic cannabinoids, which are popular in prisons because their frequent omission from toxicology screens. They have also been involved in fatal overdoses, some of which are initially misattributed as “natural” causes of death. Like in the rest of the country, methamphetamine and fentanyl are also frequently involved in ADOC fatalities.
Photograph of a sign posted to prison bars announcing the January 2021 hunger strike at an Alabama Department of Corrections facility, posted by FAM on Twitter