This story originally appeared in Prism on Nov. 11, 2022.
Hours before dawn on Sept. 26, the incarcerated workers who run the prison kitchens across Alabama were slated to begin their shifts when they refused to take up their posts, kicking off one of the largest prison strikes in US history.
“Everything was electric from then on—[people] were excited and anxious for action,” said Antoine Lipscomb, a founding member of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) who spoke with Prism Reports from Limestone Correctional Facility, one of the largest and deadliest prisons in the state, currently housing nearly 2,300 people.
The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) classifies 14 prisons within the state as “major facilities,” and there are almost 17,000 people incarcerated in those prisons. In a highly unusual move, the ADOC publicly confirmed the strike action across “all major facilities in the state” on the very first day of the strike. Acknowledging a prison strike and its scope goes against the prevailing wisdom in prison administration. In 2018, leading up to the national prison strike, prison associations advocated the use of disinformation campaigns when dealing with prisoner resistance to manage the disruption and discourage further participation.
While acknowledging the strike, a spokesperson for the governor said the demands of the incarcerated strikers were “unreasonable and would flat out not be welcomed in Alabama.” The strike demands included:
- repealing the habitual offender law
- making presumptive sentencing retroactive
- repealing the drive-by shooting statute
- creating a statewide conviction integrity unit
- developing consistent criteria for mandatory parole
- streamlining processes for medical furloughs and elder release
- reducing the minimum sentences for juvenile offenders
- eliminating life without parole sentences
Advocates say far from being “unreasonable,” those changes would constitute a program of substantive decarceration. They would also address the unconstitutional overcrowding of Alabama’s prisons and increase opportunities for prisoners to return to their communities.
The work strike continued for three weeks in at least five prisons before prisoners in all facilities returned to work. While the strikers’ demands remain unfulfilled, organizers both inside and outside the prisons are encouraged by the strike’s organization and the mass support it received. Contrary to ADOC’s characterization that the strike has “ended,” incarcerated organizers describe the strike as having merely been paused.
“It will resume,” Lipscomb said, adding that incarcerated organizers and supporters are resting, regrouping, and discussing strategy. For many who participated in the strikes, future strikes or protests aren’t just vehicles for decarceration, they’re also about survival and the possibility of life beyond incarceration.
Striking against despair
Long before three strikes statutes became popularized during Clinton era in the ’90s, Alabama’s version, the 1977 Habitual Offender Law, drew the ire of academics and correctional facilities staff in 1985, who argued life without parole sentences removes “all incentive for good behavior,” and fuels “frustration and rage, which in turn produces prison riots and threats to staff.” Currently, 75% of prisoners sentenced to die in Alabama prisons under the Habitual Offender Law are Black, despite Black people representing less than 27% of the state’s population.
Relatedly, one of the key motivations behind widespread strike participation is the state’s draconian parole board. In July, more people died inside Alabama prisons than were granted parole. This year, the Alabama parole board has revoked parole in 67% of hearings, a rate over six times the rate that it has granted it. According to ADOC data, their rate of granting parole has fallen from 54% of eligible prisoners in 2017 to 6% this past August. In a recent interview with the Montgomery Advisor, organizer Diyawn Caldwell said, “More people are coming out in body bags than they are on parole.”
Advocates believe that while individually, the changes demanded by the strike might have minimal impact on the state’s incarceration rate, together they would provide thousands of prisoners expanded avenues toward release. Crucially, the strike is an attempt to combat the despair that comes from indefinite incarceration with no foreseeable path to freedom.
According to prisoners, that despair is an essential ingredient to the violence and drug use that make Alabama’s prisons the deadliest in the nation. Amid six years of scrutiny, the DOJ describes confinement in ADOC prisons as “constitutional deficiencies.” That scrutiny, however, has produced no tangible improvements. The death rate in Alabama prisons has more than quintupled since 2005, from 33 deaths in 2005 to 173 in 2021.
The methods Alabama state officials used to repress the resistance of the strike further illustrate how incarcerated people suffer at the whim of the carceral system. Family visitation was canceled, prisons implemented new “security measures,” the Corrections Emergency Response Team (known inside as riot squads or goon squads) was deployed, prisoner activist Robert Earl Council, aka Kinetik Justice, was placed in solitary confinement again, and ADOC used the strike as a pretext to reduce the number of meals.
Officials claimed the shift to two cold meals per day in major male facilities was logistical, arguing without the prisoner labor force, they lacked the workers to cook for three meals a day for nearly 23,500 people. Prisoners called the practice “bird feeding,” an attempt to starve prisoners into submission. Prisoners argued these meals did not meet the needs of prisoners with dietary restrictions and medical conditions, putting more lives at risk. ADOC also put out a statement about the health of a prisoner named Kastello Demarcus Vaughan to refute allegations of medical neglect.
Under these circumstances, incarcerated organizers say that a widespread strike and their demands shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“You’re looking at individuals finally [coming] to the realization, ‘Hey, I’m gonna die in here,’” said K. Shaun Traywick, aka Swift Justice, who is currently incarcerated at Fountain Correctional Facility. “Once they hear it enough, once they see it in the actions of ADOC and the parole board and society, they finally realize maybe it’s best that we [strike]. Maybe it will make a difference.”
New developments in the prison strike era
Local news in Alabama referred to the strike as “an unprecedented move” by incarcerated people. While the duration, discipline, and scale of the strike are monumental developments in the prisoner movement, the strike in fact is an extension of many similar actions in recent years. Prisoner resistance, including work and hunger strikes, boycotts, and other forms of organized disobedience like “sit-downs,” have a history as lengthy as incarceration itself. In the US this is most well chronicled in the captivating and tragic story of the Attica Rebellion and the massacre that ended it.
The Georgia prisoner work strike of 2010 is frequently cited by today’s incarcerated organizers as a point of origin and source of inspiration for a new phase of prisoner resistance. Strikers released their demands to state prison officials and the press, including the demand that workers be paid a living wage, noting that prisoners in Georgia received no wages, which they argued violated the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. This demand would later be adapted to the movement to abolish exception clauses to anti-slavery statutes. That push has been embraced by many legislative advocates, but has yet to lead to any decarceration or changes in labor practices.
As The New York Times noted, cell phones had already been in prisons for some time, but this was the first known example of incarcerated people using them to coordinate resistance across different facilities. They also became a critical tool in circumventing the prison system’s ability to monitor and prevent their communication, not only to each other, but to the general public and the press, often via social media.
The following year, people who were incarcerated in California’s supermax Pelican Bay State Prison went on massive rolling hunger strikes that eventually grew to over 30,000 prisoners in the state through multiple phases over three years. Incarcerated organizers facilitated an agreement to end hostilities inside the prisons and mobilized a large outside group of families and advocates in solidarity. Strikers raised multiple issues, but key among them were California’s practice of indefinite solitary confinement, especially for those it classified as “gang members,” and its “debriefing” process, which required prisoners to provide information on “gang activity” to secure their release from solitary. The UN has described solitary confinement for 15 days or more as torture, and prisoners argued this practice amounted to torture with inadequate pretext toward due process or avenues for redress.
While the outcomes of those strikes and the related successful lawsuit have been varied, complex, and partial, the strikes provide a powerful example of how dynamic inside-outside action can shift policy and practice, potentially opening up new contradictions and arenas of struggle against the carceral system. For instance, FAM has adopted many tactics and lessons learned from the Georgia work strikes in their efforts. In 2014, incarcerated organizers mobilized two strikes in Alabama, the larger of which led to the shutdown of two facilities—St. Clair and Holman—which at the time incarcerated roughly 2,400 people. Additionally, FAM released “Let The Crops Rot In The Fields,” a manifesto that would inspire the coordination of national prisoner strikes, the first of which was led by FAM in 2016 and supported by the fledgling inside-outside solidarity organization the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWOC-IWW).
The 2016 national prison strike saw “[l]ockdowns, inmate suspensions, and full-unit strikes lasting at least 24 hours were reported at 31 facilities,” which housed approximately 57,000 incarcerated people across 24 states, according to Shadow Proof’s Brian Nam-Sonenstein. Repression against the strike was widespread. The following year Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of incarcerated paralegals and human rights advocates who organize nationally, launched a Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March with support from outside organizations. Prison officials in Florida were so concerned about solidarity action inside that they locked down the entire state’s nearly 100,000 prisoners. The march was followed by Operation PUSH in 2018.
Since 2018, outside organizations have taken different directions, some more focused on politicization and building infrastructure. The most frequent acts of resistance by incarcerated people have taken place on more local and regional scales against conditions that local authorities can directly address. While those efforts have seen some victories, there hasn’t been a widespread state-wide or national incarcerated-led campaign over the last four years.
Tactics of strike repression
In the wake of the 2016 national strike, incarcerated organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak raised concerns about the efficacy of work strikes as a sole tactic in galvanizing collective action among prisoners. Having a job can significantly affect someone’s circumstances during incarceration. Labor arrangements within prisons vary from state to state, and in some states, it is quite rare for prisoners to have jobs. Imprisoned organizers have noted instances in which prison administrators exchange certain sets of privileges with jobs, such as better housing situations, greater freedom of movement, greater access to commissary or phones, and perhaps more time outside. Stevie Wilson, who is currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania, and former political prisoner James Kilgore point out that the precarity of jobs inside and enticement of special privileges make it even more difficult to convince incarcerated people to sacrifice those jobs and act in solidarity with strike efforts.
Additionally, incarcerated people in some form of solitary confinement don’t have jobs, which means they can’t materially participate in a labor strike. The 2018 national strike addressed this issue by expanding the tactical repertoire of resistance to include commissary boycotts, acts of protest like “sit downs,” hunger strikes, and labor strikes. While this may have enabled more prisoners to participate, it can also potentially make strike participation less legible to the media, and it can be easier for public officials to deny and repress the strikers.
Since 2018, organizers have discussed the possibility of additional major prison strikes, but amid concerns that there may not be enough support to swell into collective action, they have not come to fruition. Swift Justice said that he had initially stepped away from organizing for the most recent Alabama strike, quoting the definition of insanity often misattributed to Albert Einstein, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Despite the pessimism around strike participation and support, the Alabama strike among incarcerated workers defied expectations and was strongly reflected over social media and local news over the past month, often with the hashtag #ShutdownADOC2022.
Swift Justice works in a so-called “honor dorm” in ADOC, a prison space that some have characterized as inhospitable to collective protest organizing, and was shocked by the level of solidarity and commitment he’s seen by others incarcerated there, most of whom he said, “couldn’t make it in general population.” Defying conventional wisdom, he said that it has been precisely those workers with the most to potentially lose from participating in the strike who had the most impact. Many of those workers controlled the essential duties of social reproduction inside—cooking, cleaning, trash removal, laundry—which enabled them to shut down the entire Alabama prison system.
“The weakest link has actually turned into being the strongest link,” Swift Justice said.
Political education pays off in the long term
The New York Times and ADOC have both intimated in their reporting that outside organizers had significant influence on the strike activity inside Alabama prisons, but both the mass scale of the strike and the responses of those incarcerated there belie this notion. One prisoner who spoke with Prism Reports and wished to keep his criticism anonymous acknowledged that prisoners appreciate the outside support and organizing of solidarity protests, but he scoffed at the notion that people on the outside were leading the way or coordinating the action of those on the inside.
“You know things don’t work like that,” he said.
Lipscomb attributes the sustained commitment of the recent strike to incarcerated people’s frustrations with the parole system and fears over the likelihood of dying before being able to be released. Most crucially, he believes that the long-term investment that organizers like FAM have made by engaging in mass political education with their incarcerated peers is paying dividends. Incarcerated people in Alabama have studied the organizing of the Black Panther Party, and the thoughts of figures like Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael.
According to Lipscomb, the support of street organizations, which command a considerable amount of influence inside, has been critical.
“They enable us to do the teaching and networking in a peace and solidarity like I’ve never seen before,” Lipscomb said. “I commend the youngsters for their courage and respect for revolutionary thinking and change.”
As incarcerated organizers regroup and discuss when and how to reconvene the strike, they do so with a proven ability to bring about a powerful and widespread strike against prison operations in Alabama.
“I’m a student of history, and struggling has always been a part of life,” Lipscomb said. “So I’m studying from those who came before me as a guide to [get us] where we’re trying to be, and that is free.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.