Rattling the Bars: Alabama prisoners on strike

On Monday, Sept. 26, incarcerated workers at all major Alabama Department of Corrections prison facilities began a labor strike. The strike is focused on both improving the living conditions of prisoners and demanding changes to Alabama’s draconian parole and sentencing laws and practices. A 2020 Justice Department lawsuit found that the Alabama prison system “fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff.”

TRNN contributor Michael Sainato returns to Rattling the Bars to discuss the issues at play in this prison strike. The labor of Albama’s prisoners not only keeps the facilities that cage them operational, but also contributes to the economies of depressed rural regions of the state. This economic dependence on incarceration is one of the factors driving Alabama’s inhumane parole practices—some 97% of parole cases in the state are rejected. Striking prisoners and their loved ones protesting in support from the outside are calling for the repeal of the state’s Habitual Felony Offenders Act, along with other major changes to Alabama’s parole and sentencing laws. Current updates on the prison strike are being released by the organization Free Alabama Movement. This conversation was recorded on Sept. 27.

Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway is doing good. Eddie Conway’s health is improving. And, hopefully, at some point in time, Eddie Conway will make a cameo appearance at the program that he started, and the network that he loves.

The Alabama prison system is on strike. Now, I’m going to list a few things that encapsule why they would be on strike: The failure of the Alabama correction system to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse; The failure to protect them from excessive force by staff; And the failure to provide safe conditions of confinement, alleged violation of their Eighth Amendment right.

Now, these would be some of the issues that anyone would say that the entire prison system is on strike about, and that these would be the things that they would be alleging. But what I just listed is what the Department of Justice is alleging in a suit they filed against the Alabama Corrections Institution in 2020.

Here to talk about what’s going on in the heart of the South and the prison-industrial complex in the heart of the South is Mike Sainato. Michael, introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars viewers. You are no stranger to it, but go ahead and introduce yourself again, please.

Michael Sainato:  Well, my name is Michael Sainato. I’m a reporter for The Guardian and The Real News Network. I cover mostly labor issues, but I cover prison labor issues as well. And I reside in Gainesville, Florida.

Mansa Musa:  All right, man, let’s just go right into the issue. What’s the update on the prison strike – Statewide prison strike, mind you – In the state of Alabama? What’s the current update on it, before we go into the details of the why… If there’s any update to be offered?

Michael Sainato:  The strike started yesterday, and the Alabama Department of Corrections admitted all major prisons have experienced varying degrees of workers on strike. The jobs that are on strike are prisoners who have to work in food prep and in the kitchen services and the maintenance and cleaning services.

You mentioned a couple of the issues behind the strike. The Department of Justice, a few years ago, ruled that the Alabama prison system is violating the Constitution, violating human rights, because of the poor conditions. And just a couple years ago, they filed a lawsuit because the State of Alabama hasn’t corrected or fixed anything. And they still haven’t. It’s been four years since that issue was first brought up by the Department of Justice. The only thing that Alabama has done is start to construct new prisons, but those won’t even be open for another three or four years.

I think one of the biggest issues behind the strikes is that paroles just aren’t being granted at all. A couple of the organizations behind this strike have noted that 97% of parolees have been denied parole. It seems that parole boards are just outright denying parole for those in prison for cases that shouldn’t be denied at all. And that comes into play. Alabama has some really harsh sentencing laws. They have a 30-year minimum for juvenile offenders. People are getting life sentences for nonviolent crimes. There’s a lot of issues.

Mansa Musa:  Right. In that regard, one of the things that the supporters of the strikers are asking for is the repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, which is contributing to what you just talked about as far as creating draconian and inhumane sentencing that leads to the prison population being overcrowded.

But let’s talk about some of the things that the Justice Department found. More importantly, the Justice Department filed a suit. The court has already ruled that ain’t nothing going to take place. Nothing is going to take place in regard to the suit until 2024, where they’ll have a trial on the issues.

Now mind you, we’re talking about how the Justice Department has cited these conditions that exist. Violence: Alabama had one of the most violent prison systems in the country. I think they say [300] of every 100,000 prisoners are killed in Alabama prisons. That means that everybody in the maximum and medium security prison in Alabama, when they go in these systems, they expect some sort of violence to take place.

The Justice Department cited in the women’s prison that 30% of the women in the medium and maximum security prisons are molested by the officers, that the prisons are overcrowded. Now, this is a Justice Department study that came out and said this and sued in this regard. So why is it that we’re at this stage right now where the prison population is forced to have a strike in order to get redress or get attention to the problem when it’s already been noted? Why are we having this intransigent attitude from the state towards women and these problems?

Michael Sainato:  Well, you have Governor Kay Ivey and Alabama Republicans who are in power who either have been dismissive of the issues within their prison systems. They’ve denied and disputed claims from the Department of Justice. I mean, this was the Department of Justice under the Trump administration that [crosstalk] her out.

Mansa Musa:  Exactly, exactly.

Michael Sainato:  These are human rights violations. So there’s really been no swift actions being taken to address these problems. And with these parole denials and these harsh sentencing laws, overcrowding is getting worse. And that fuels violence. It’s not just prisoner on prisoner. There’s a video out today that was released of prison guards assaulting a prisoner ridiculously. Just a warning, if you do go on social media and look for it, watching it, it’s pretty brutal.

A prisoner was reported to have died in Alabama prisons today. They were tied up and found assaulted. So you have a lot of these vast issues within the prison system, and it’s just untenable. They keep kicking the can down the road and saying, it’s going to be addressed in a few years. But these human rights violations are occurring now, and they’re harming people now.

And it’s not just those in prison. Their families who are concerned for the wellbeing and safety and want their family members to be released, or at least protected and adequately provided for. And that’s just not being the case. There’s been some meals, especially recently of what they’re served, it’s basically inedible. They get a couple pieces of bread and some peanut butter. Some prisoners didn’t even get any lunch yesterday. And these are just ongoing human rights violations. I think there needs to be a lot swifter action taken from the federal government to move in.

Mansa Musa:  And that’s really what I’m taking back, is that we have the federal government come in and cite human rights violations and Eighth Amendment violations and then file litigation on behalf of the plaintiffs. It stands to reason that this is more like a knee-jerk reaction than being more assertive, because you have the authority and the power to be more forceful. You have the authority and the power to have a more concrete action take place.

But let’s talk about some of the 13 prisons, major prisons in the state of Alabama. These are all max and medium security prisons. The major prison that they were talking about was Holman Correctional Facility. Holman Correctional Facility is in Escambia, a county of Alabama. That’s the one prison that they’re talking about building another facility in this county. Talk about how these prisons, in general, are being utilized to create an infrastructure for the economy for these rural counties.

Michael Sainato:  These rural counties, they’re placed in these areas where they’re not seen by the majority of the population. And these small towns rely on these prisons economically for jobs. So there’s economic incentives to maintain and grow the mass incarceration system in the US, because you have rural areas that have experienced declines and job loss, are dealing with economic issues and rural poverty.

These prisons are always sold and brought and idolized by local politicians in these areas, and local governments, and just the local communities. They don’t address the prisoners for the people they are, and the impacts on them and their families and their communities. It’s seen as just an economic engine for this mass incarceration system.

Those new buildings are being built not only in regards to the human rights violations, but because the current prisons, the infrastructure is so bad that they can’t renovate them, that it’s not even possible. So they have to develop entirely new buildings. But in the meantime, this poor infrastructure, this inadequate infrastructure, this overcrowding, is being used in admitting prisoners in Alabama right now are subjected to that, are being forced in that environment under really bad conditions.

We’ve seen it over the years: every summer, the lack of air conditioning, the inadequate and edible food. I’ve heard that every time I’ve spoken with someone who’s done time in Alabama. That’s a huge, huge issue Alabama has. It relies on prison labor to keep these prison services running. And local communities depend on that prison labor, too.

I had an article come out in The Guardian today. I want to talk about Alabama and a few other states in November. They have a ballot initiative to end the exception to the 13th Amendment. These ballot initiatives are focusing on state Constitutions. Our US Constitution has that exception to slavery. Slavery is abolished except for those in prison, and states, institutions have adopted that. There’s local movements in a lot of states right now. Three have already removed this exception clause. Rhode Island, Utah, and I can’t recall the third one right now. But Alabama is one of these states that in November, voters will decide on whether to keep or get rid of that clause.

The strike right now that’s going on has to do with those jobs. These workers are getting paid to work maintenance and kitchen and food service jobs, that outside in the normal world you’d be getting –

Mansa Musa:  Minimum wage, at least.

Michael Sainato:  …Minimum wage at least. And they’re lucky if they’re getting any income at all from working in these jobs. They’re not getting the same protections, breaks or things like that. They don’t have any agency over working in these jobs. And these prisons run on their labor.

So they’re withholding that labor to put pressure on Alabama’s politicians to address all these widespread issues throughout the system that the Department of Justice and civil rights groups and criminal justice reform groups have been calling out and pushing, pressuring for action. And the leaders in Alabama have been dragging their feet or refusing to address or even acknowledge the huge problems within this prison system.

Mansa Musa:  You know what? I was listening to some of the interviews that were being offered by the Alabama governor, Governor Kay, I think her name is. She responded by saying that she’s not going to release [anyone]. And then she went to the people that have been found guilty of committing what might be considered some of the most horrendous crimes. So she goes to the playbook – This is the playbook for creating hysteria – We’re not going to release robbers, murderers, rapists, child molesters back into society.

But from what I’m gathering, the issues that the prisoners and their families are talking about are treating people like human beings. And I think for our listeners and our viewers, we want to emphasize this point right here: that according to law, your sentence is your punishment. What you’re sentenced to is your punishment. When you enter into a correctional facility or institution, from that point on, you’re starting to be reformed and changed so that you can ultimately return back to society.

But as far as Alabama prison system is concerned – And the governor and everyone is in cahoots with this – That the more violent the prisons are, the more atrocious the conditions are, the better it is for them in terms of building more prisons, monetizing the labor of prisoners, and using the industrial complex in Alabama to create a infrastructure for the survival of little small rural counties in rural Alabama.

But talk about some of the things going on with the prisoners, and some of the things going on with them in terms of your overview of what’s going on with them at this juncture right now.

Michael Sainato:  Okay, well, the prison strike is still going on today. That started yesterday. It’s indefinite. So I believe it’s still going to continue until at least some of their demands are met. Like you said from the governor, they’re dismissing these demands and the calls and the issues that they’re dressing out. And that tends to happen when strikes occur. They’re a last resort, withholding their labor. That’s a tactic. It’s a difficult thing for any worker to do. Especially in prison, because they are reporting and experiencing retaliation, whether that’s not getting any meals or just getting even worse, inadequate meals compared to what they’re used to.

Because right now, you have the correctional officers doing the work of the kitchen. That’s why we’ve been seeing just a couple slices of bread and a little pint of milk and a little peanut butter as a meal, which is really inadequate and disgusting. And just another example in the numerous examples of human rights violations within these prisons.

And it’s difficult because the families, because of the retaliation that they’re possibly subjecting themselves from correctional officers and from the prison, it’s really up to the people in charge of the prison, their access to the public in terms of speaking out. So I’m still trying to get in touch with family members and organizers that are leading this out.

You have family members and organizers leading rallies and protests in conjunction with the strike, to make sure the public is aware of what’s going on. They’re posting cell phone videos that are being taken secretly, because they’re not supposed to have cell phones. You can get in a lot of trouble. You can get assaulted, wind up in solitary confinement if they’re caught doing this. So they’re taking enormous risks, these prisoners, to not only go out on strike, but to continue on with the strike despite the internal pressures from the abusive correctional officers, and the system in general, to raise awareness of these issues.

Like you said, with the governor and a lot of Republican elected officials, a lot of police, they really go to the vilifying and to overgeneralizing, portraying that these are monsters, that these are violent criminals. When you look at the data that most of the people within prisons do not fit the characterizations, the often-racist generalizations and the fear mongering that these elected officials and all these police go out to do.

It’s not just in Alabama. They do that all over the country. We’ve seen it in cities. Conservatives are trying to make it seem like they’re lawless areas. Some of the things that these people have said and claimed are just outright ridiculous. There’s no substance or truth behind them.

But that’s what the communities pushing for reform and changes are up against. These systems are meant to perpetuate and instill fear in the public to undermine any efforts for change.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And I think that when we do an overview of the Alabama prison system, it epitomized the prison-industrial complex and the 13th Amendment in regard to slavery.

Talk about what’s going on with the families. I know they suspended visits, but talk about if you got any read on how the families are feeling or where the families stand. Because we know that their loved ones are being subjected, even right now, to some cruel and unusual punishment as a result of the strike. We know they’re going to try to break this strike.

I was in an environment where we were on lockdown for nine months. And for the nine months, they gave us one cereal, two pieces of bread, milk, and a fruit in the morning. Gave us bologna and cheese for lunch, some kind of fruit. And then at dinner, they gave us some kind of cold meat. And they did this for like nine months straight.

Talk about the families. I know you say you’re trying to get in contact with them. Have you been able to get in contact with the supporters, or anybody that can give us a read on where the families are at, and what we can do to help this? What the viewers of Rattling the Bars can do to help bring attention to this horrendous problem that’s taking place in the Deep South?

Michael Sainato:  In regards to the families, there’s been some comments out in local press in Alabama. The families are obviously concerned, but very supportive of the strike, and have been participating in protests and rallies in support of the demands. And really backing their demands in addressing the current conditions in the prisons, and the various harsh sentencing and denial of parole for those in Alabama prisons.

One of the organizations leading this strike is called the Free Alabama Movement. They’ve been posting on Twitter, on social media. If you go on there, you can watch some of the videos that are coming out, some of the latest developments of the strike, some of the latest news, and you can get involved with that. You can share and keep raising awareness.

Because I think, on the outside, what this organization is trying to do is to get the public aware of what’s happening in the prisons as much as possible to enable this strike, to have as much pressure on elected officials and as much awareness on the problem. And basically embarrass Alabama Republicans into actually taking action.

Because they’ve had plenty of time. They’ve had years now. They’re fully aware of the problems, and nothing’s being done. And only from the federal government, like you said, it’s going to take years for the courts to intervene. These people don’t have that kind of time to continue enduring what they’re being forced to deal with on a daily basis.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it: the real news about sweet home Alabama. That’s the Deep South, the home of the Confederacy, slavery in its purest form, in the form of Alabama’s correctional system.

We know now that the State of Alabama and the governor and everyone that’s behind this horrendous treatment of people, we recognize that 300 people have been killed; every 300 out of 100,000. That the women are being molested. And everything the governor is saying about the people in there, her staff is inflicting this kind of hard, cruel treatment on people.

Mike, you got the last word on this.

Michael Sainato:  So the Free Alabama Movement is one of the organizations that are leading the strike on the outside in terms of sharing videos from those on the inside, and giving the public any updates in terms of what’s going on and how they’re being responded to.

I think it’s really important to continue to share those videos, support them, follow the strike and support media outlets that are actually paying attention to it. Because it’s not something that mainstream media outlets like CNN, Fox News, they’re never going to mention this.

Despite, when you have similar conditions or similar issues in countries like China or Russia or anything like that, there’s a lot more attention brought to those issues. But what human rights violations are occurring in our own backyard and something as rare, and the issues behind this strike. Like I said, it’s not just a strike on the outside. These people are really putting their lives on the line to call attention to the issues they’re facing and the abuses within the system. So I think it’s really important.

I implore the public to continue educating themselves about these issues. It’s not going to be a story that’s going to be kept being put in front of you, like things in the mainstream media. It’s not the Queen’s funeral. It’s not going to get that kind of attention.

It really comes down to individuals participating and getting involved, educating themselves, educating others, getting involved with activism, and pushing for these changes. And pushing back on the fear mongering and the dismissals. And just the silence from those with powerful platforms and those who have the power to actually take actions to resolve these demands.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The real news. We need to keep an eye on what’s going on in Alabama. We need to be aware of what’s being done to people. These are human beings that are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, whose life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is always jeopardized.

We want to encourage all The Real News listeners and all the Rattling the Bars viewers to educate yourself on what’s going on in Alabama, and take a stand on what’s going on in Alabama. Whether you agree with the strike or not, you should agree that human beings should be treated as human beings.

Thank you, Mike, for this enlightening conversation and this interview. We look forward to your follow-up on this. Thank you very much.

Michael Sainato:  Thanks for having me, Mansa.

Mansa Musa:  And I encourage everyone to continue to support The Real News. This is not an alternative to the news. This is actually the news being given to you real. You will never hear nothing about the Alabama prison system on your major networks that might [inaudible]. You’ll never hear nothing about what’s going on within the general society at large. You only hear these things on The Real News. And more importantly, you’ll hear these things on Rattling the Bars.

Thank you very much. On behalf of Eddie Conway, have a great day.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.