“We decided that the only weapon or strategy … that we have is our labor, because that’s the only reason that we’re here,” said Melvin Ray, an inmate at the St. Clair correctional facility and founder of the prison-based group Free Alabama Movement. “They’re incarcerating people for the free labor.” Spokespeople for Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and his Department of Corrections did not respond to midday inquiries Thursday. Jobs done by inmates include kitchen and laundry work, chemical and license plate production, and furniture-making. In 2011, Alabama’s Department of Agriculture reportedly discussed using inmates to replace immigrants for agricultural work; in 2012, the state Senate passed a bill to let private businesses employ prison labor.
Inmates at St. Clair and two other prisons, Holman and Elmore, previously refused to work for several days in January. A Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Associated Press at the time that those protests were peaceful, and told AL.com that some of the inmates’ demands were outside the authority of the department to address. The state told the AP that a handful of inmates refused work, and others were prevented from working by safety or weather issues. In contrast, Ray told Salon the January effort drew the participation of all of St. Clair’s roughly 1,300 inmates and nearly all of Holman’s roughly 1,100. He predicted this weekend’s work stoppage would spread further and grow larger than that one, but also accused prison officials of hampering F.A.M.’s organizing by wielding threats and sending him and other leaders to solitary confinement. “It’s a hellhole,” he told Salon. “That’s what they created these things for: to destroy men.”
Along with organizing work stoppages, F.A.M. has posted clandestinely shot cellphone videos from inmates describing and documenting alleged abuses, including unsafe beef, broken fire exits and exposed wires. The DOC told AL.com that the inmates who used the cellphones, which are banned in Alabama state prisons, could be punished. (Asked about the cellphone on which he was speaking with Salon, Ray said that while he was currently in solitary confinement, F.A.M. members were “going to make sure that I have the resources I need … to accomplish the job,” and declined to elaborate.)
Ray said the strikers are out to secure educational programming and true rehabilitation, and to end overcrowding, life sentences without parole, and “the free labor system.” “There is not even the pretense of doing anything about ‘corrections,’” he argued. Rather, “they’re running a slave empire.”