Prison Labor Strike in Alabama: “We Will No Longer Contribute to Our Own Oppression”

Prison Labor Strike in Alabama: “We Will No Longer Contribute to Our Own Oppression”

http://solitarywatch.com/2016/05/05/prison-labor-strike-in-alabama-we-will-no-longer-contribute-to-our-own-oppression/

Jack Denton – May 5, 2016

Despite being held in solitary confinement for years, men known as Kinetik, Dhati, and Brother M, primary leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, have been instrumental in organizing a statewide prison work stoppage in Alabama that began on Sunday, May 1. Currently, the prison labor strike has begun at Alabama’s Holman, Staton, and Elmore Correctional Facilities. St. Clair’s stoppage will begin on May 9, with Donaldson and other correctional facilities to follow soon after. The current plan is for the work stoppage to last 30 days, although the Movement’s leaders said the length of the strike is contingent on the cooperation of legislators in regard to reforming the prison labor system and the conditions of the prisons. The Free Alabama Movement is an activist network of incarcerated men, spanning numerous state prisons across Alabama.

Participants report that, apparently in retaliation against the work stoppage, the entire populations of the striking prisons have been served significantly smaller meal portions this week, a tactic called “bird feeding” that is sometimes used by prison guards to put pressure on prisoners through malnourishment. “They are trying to starve a nigga into compliance,” said one man, who estimated that his meals had been reduced by more than 60 percent of his normal serving size. Prisons that have not begun striking, but are soon scheduled to, like St. Clair, are also allegedly being bird-fed. “The food is always garbage,” said one man, “but it’s usually a lot more than this.”

Additionally, the entire populations of Alabama’s striking prisons–including the general prison population not usually in 23 hour a day segregation–have been placed in indefinite solitary confinement. A statement released by the Alabama Department of Corrections calls this a “lockdown with limited inmate movement” that will persist “while ADOC investigates the situation.” Holman was also placed on lockdown in March following an uprising in which a correctional officer and the warden were stabbed after intervening in a fight, and prisoners briefly set fire to hallways.

The prisoner work stoppage is a nonviolent protest against many of the conditions in Alabama’s prisons, especially against the unpaid prison labor that makes money for private companies and the state of Alabama. During the stoppage, Alabama’s incarcerated will refuse to leave their cells to perform the jobs that they usually perform each day for little to no pay. These range from the many jobs that allow the prison to function (such as serving food) to “industry” jobs (which allow private companies to profit off of prison labor). These “industry” jobs are the only jobs in Alabama prisons that pay at all, though the pay rates are negligible, ranging from $0.17 to $0.30 an hour.

At Holman, the industry jobs are done at the tag plant that makes license plates for the state of Alabama and the sewing factory that makes sheets and pillowcases for Alabama’s state prisons. Elmore contains a canning and recycling plant, and St. Clair contains a vehicle restoration and chemical plant that, according to the Free Alabama Movement, produces more than $25 million worth of chemicals a year.

The use of prison labor in Alabama by private, for-profit companies was legalized by the Alabama state legislature in 2012. “We are going to put our prisoners to work. They are going to be paid a reasonable wage,” Alabama state representative and bill sponsor Jim McClendon told AL.com at the time. Since then, Alabama has developed 17 different prison labor industries at correctional facilities across the state.

Alabama’s incarcerated are regularly charged what they call “outrageous fines” and fees, despite the fact that they are paid nothing, or only a few cents an hour, for their labor. “Our mass incarceration is a form of slavery, because we’re not being paid for our work, but we’re being charged outrageous fines,” one man told Solitary Watch. Required fees include $4 for armbands, $4 for identification cards, and $31.50 for a urinalysis test. Prisoners are charged $200 to petition a court, which is their only way to file a complaint, since Alabama’s prisons have no grievance procedure.

Incarcerated individuals are also charged $25 dollars for being caught with a cell-phone the first time, $50 the second time, and $75 the third. The fine goes up by $25 each time, despite the fact that correctional officers sell the phones to prisoners, and that the phones are primarily used by the incarcerated to contact their families. These families are required to cover the costs of these fines and fees incurred by their loved ones inside, since prison labor is unpaid or barely paid. “This is extortion; there’s no other way to put it,” said another man.

The Free Alabama Movement is not just hoping for change in the practices of their individual facilities, but for legal change in Montgomery. “Our problem is with the legislature,” Dhati told Solitary Watch. “No one within these facilities can resolve these issue for us. We have a spokesperson outside of prison that will give our demands to the state legislature for us.”

That spokesperson is Kenneth Sharpton Glasgow, a Dothan, Alabama, pastor and the younger brother of Al Sharpton. Glasgow is the director of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), a nonprofit that serves as a halfway house for many people recently released from Alabama prisons, providing them food, housing, addiction counseling, and job training. Glasgow has long been an advocate for incarcerated people, having once served 15 years himself on drug-related charges. During the work stoppage, Glasgow said, “I am the advocate for the Free Alabama Movement…I am here to make sure their voices are heard.”

Last Thursday, Glasgow visited the statehouse in Montgomery to speak to state legislators about the work stoppage and the Movement’s demands. Glasgow told Solitary Watch that he will also be back in Montgomery later this week. He said that he had already received supportive comments from the state legislature’s Democratic caucus.

When reached for comment, the Alabama Department of Corrections refused to answer specific questions, but pointed to a press release sent out on Monday, May 2, that alleged, despite Glasgow’s advocacy as a spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement, that the DOC had not been “given any demands, or a reason for refusing to work.”

A statement from the Free Alabama Movement, that they said was sent to the Alabama DOC on Monday, makes it clear that their chief demand is the abolition of unpaid prison labor, which they consider to be slavery. The work stoppage is “about the 13th Amendment, the Alabama Constitution of 1901 and the Statutory Laws discriminatorily enacted from both,” the document states. Currently, the text of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution outlaws slavery for all “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Other demands include the improvement of the unsanitary living quarters and drinking water in Alabama’s prisons, and the creation of a grievance procedure in Alabama’s prisons. “We will no longer contribute to our own oppression,” Kinetik said. “We will no longer continue to work for free and be treated like this.” Dhati called the nonviolent work stoppage “an economic solution to an economic problem.”

What the movement calls their “deplorable conditions of confinement” refers not only to the cleanliness of the cells, but also to the negligence those in solitary confinement experience. Every cell in the solitary confinement unit at Alabama’s Holman State Correctional Facility is equipped with a call button, to be used to summon prison guards for help in an emergency. Despite their apparent function, these buttons fail to send a signal to the guards or elsewhere, so prisoners’ requests for help often go unheeded.

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Northwest Detention Center Hunger Strike Ends after 56 Days – Collective of Detainees Releases Statement

AFTER 56 DAYS, NORTHWEST DETENTION CENTER HUNGER STRIKE CONCLUDES; NEWLY FORMED COLLECTIVE OF DETAINEES RELEASES STATEMENT

Tacoma, WA, May 5, 2014 – The wave of hunger strikes that first began on March 7th at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), a federal facility owned by the GEO Group and under the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has concluded. In a communication dated May 1st, the newly formed “Collective of NWDC-T Detainees,” informed their supporters that they have completed this stage of their struggle. Full text of statement, with Spanish-language original, is below; pdf of original available upon request. The letter, titled, “Assessment of one phase of struggle” documents the retaliation suffered by the peaceful whistle-blowing hunger strikers during the March 27th wave of the strike. Describing “rigged hearings under false accusations with no respect for due process” and “sentences of 2 to 30 days” of solitary confinement suffered by the hunger strikers, the Collective also affirms their commitment to their initial demands, including a call for an end to deportations and for bold action by President Obama.

The hunger strike, which at its height included 1200 detainees, garnered local, national, and international media attention, and exposed the deplorable conditions in the facility, one of the largest detention centers on the West Coast. A February 24th #Not1More action outside the gates of the NWDC, where protesters blocked deportation buses and vans, inspired those held inside to take action of their own in the form of the hunger strike. Jose Moreno, among those on the GEO Group-marked van protesters stopped on the 24th, helped organize the hunger strike before being released on bond. Since his release, he has continued to lead the support efforts for those still imprisoned. Hearing of the end of the strike, Mr. Moreno stated, “Abuses that have been happening for years have now come to light. We are still in the struggle, and although the strike has ended, this isn’t over.”

Among the strike’s most important victories was an end to the silence surrounding the conditions of detention and deportation in this corner of the country. Despite being located in a little-trafficked industrial zone, the strike drew hundreds of supporters to multiple rallies outside the prison and inspired a similar action in a GEO Group immigrant detention facility in Conroe, Texas. Ernestina Hernandez, the wife of one of the men deported from Conroe for engaging in the hunger strike, began a hunger strike of her own outside the gates of the White House, bringing the peaceful protest tactic to the President’s front door.

Throughout the strike, ICE and GEO Group abuses continued to come to light. Among these are serious workplace injuries suffered by detainees laboring for $1/day; possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars of unaccounted telephone funds held back by the facility upon detainees’ deportations; and the use of solitary confinement and prison transfers in response to detainees’ peaceful protest. Also spotlighted were organizations that profit from the detention center. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, headquartered in Seattle, has become a target of hunger-strike supporters and others, due to their investment in GEO Group, and pressure continues for them to divest their holdings in the private prison company.

While ICE remains unresponsive to many of the hunger strikers’ demands, others are taking action as a result of the strike. Following a visit to the facility, where he met privately with hunger strikers and listened to their stories and demands, U.S. Representative Adam Smith drafted legislation, set to be introduced this week, which aims to create statutory standards for the treatment of immigrant detainees.

In their statement, the strikers emphasized that the 56-day hunger strike was only the beginning, stating that, “The fortifications, the walls that attempted to contain our participation have cracked and with ever growing unity we will finish knocking them down; the voice that initially struggled to filter out is now heard with greater firmness and clarity.”

STATEMENT FROM HUNGER STRIKERS:
Assessment of one phase of struggle

Today, May 1st, a 30-day hunger strike came to a conclusion. It had a prelude of 72 hours of fasting begun on March 27th, occurring in a climate of persecution, harassment and application of disciplinary punishments, invented and prefabricated by personnel from GEO (the private company that runs the Northwest Detention Center – Tacoma “NWDC – T”), with the goal of stopping us from adding our voice to the voice of those on the outside clamoring for Not1More, stop deportations, end the destruction of families, deferred action for all, yes to immigration reform; despite suffering through rigged “hearings” under false accusations, with no respect for due process, taking out of context the actions of the “accused,” impeding free exercise of ideas and the exercise of freedom of expression, as well as the right to information. In an atmosphere of voluntary and strictly peaceful action, they unleashed a chain of “disciplinary sanctions,” applying isolation and segregation to the participants who were on rolling fasts and hunger strikes, from March 24 until April 2nd, with an eye towards the great action on April 5th. These resulted in sentences of 2 to 30 days of punishment, with which they attempted and are attempting to discourage our unity in becoming a single voice regardless of whether we are on the inside or on the outside. With certainty we affirm that they did not succeed in containing and silencing the voice of those on the inside, the voice of the detained. They did not succeed in hijacking our emotions or our disposition to struggle despite drastically limiting our rights and falsely accusing us of insurrection. The campaign to marginalize us carried out by a cruel and unscrupulous bureaucracy that represents immoral and indecent interests cannot contain a just struggle that uses peaceful methods to make itself heard.

The fortifications, the walls that attempted to contain our participation have cracked and with ever growing unity we will finish knocking them down; the voice that initially struggled to filter out is now heard with greater firmness and clarity. With dignity, with self-respect, we are honored to signal that we are also present and that we add ourselves to the work yet to come until we succeed in NOT ONE MORE person added to the deportation statistics, and NOT ONE MORE FAMILY destroyed, and NOT ONE MORE IMMIGRANT with their American dream cut short and treated like a second class citizen.

Our voice is added to the single voice that is part of the echo that is heard in the White House and in Capitol Hill.

To those who join forces with this struggle today.

To those who cry out in different plazas and streets today.

To those who have opened their hearts to a just cause.

To those who add their pen, their voice, their image, their untiring support, their now inseparable company.

To the girl, the boys, and the youth who exercise solidarity and love of their peers.

TO ALL OF YOU THANK YOU FOR NOT LEAVING US ALONE.

We will not let you down and we will carry out our contribution so that we signal to history, as many millions of immigrants have done before, that we too added to the strength and greatness of this GREAT COUNTRY.

We reiterate to Mr. President Barack Obama that he be bold and honor his word.

We send a signal to Congress to rise to the challenge of what is justly and morally asked of them.

NOT ONE MORE! YES WE CAN!

– Collective of NWDC-T Detainees

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ORIGINAL SPANISH-LANGUAGE VERSION OF STATEMENT:
Balance de una etapa de lucha

Hoy 1o de mayo se concluye una huelga de hambre de 30 días, con un preludio de 72 hrs de ayuno iniciado el 27 de marzo y que en un clima de persecución, hostigamiento y aplicación de correctivos disciplinarios, inventados y prefabricados por parte del persona de GEO (compañía de la iniciativa privada que administra el Northwest Detention Center – Tacoma “NWDC –T”), en un afán de impedir que sumemos nuestra voz a la voz de los que afuera claman Ni1Mas, alto a las deportaciones, no a la destrucción de familias, acción diferida para todos, si a la reforma migratoria; a pesar de padecer “audiencias” amañadas bajo acusaciones falsas, sin respetar el debido proceso, sacando de contexto acciones de los “acusados”, impidiendo la libre asociación de ideas y el ejercicio de la libertad de expresión así como el derecho a la información, ello en un ambiente personal voluntario y estrictamente pacifico, desencadenaron una ola de “sanciones disciplinarias” aplicando aislamiento y segregación a participantes en ayunos y huelgas de hambre, escalonadas del 24 de marzo al 2 de abril, con miras al gran acto del 5 de abril, y que implicaron sentencias de 2 a 30 días de castigo, que procuraban y procuran desalentar nuestra integración para volvernos una sola voz, sin importar si estamos afuera o adentro; con certeza afirmamos que no lograron contener y acallar, la voz de los de adentro, la voz de los detenidos, no lograron confiscar nuestro sentimiento, ni disposición de lucha a pesar de limitar drásticamente nuestros derechos acusándonos falsamente de sedición, la campaña para marginarnos por parte de una burocracia cruel e inescrupulosa que representa interés inmorales, indecentes no puede contra una lucha justa y que utiliza medios pacíficos para hacerse oír.

 

Los muros, las paredes que pretendían contener nuestra participación se han agrietado y con una integración cada vez mayor terminaremos derrumbarles; la voz que inicialmente costo trabajo filtrar hoy se escucha con mayor firmeza y claridad. Con dignidad, con orgullo nos honramos en señalar que también estamos presentes que nos sumamos a las tareas por venir hasta lograr que NI UNO MAS forme parte de la estadística de deportados, que NI UNA FAMILIA MAS sea destruida, que NI UN INMIGRANTE MAS se le trunque el sueño americano y que sea tratado como ciudadano de segunda.

 

Nuestra voz se ha sumado a una sola voz y es parte del eco que se escucha en la Casa Blanca y el Capitolio.

A los que hoy se hermanan con esta lucha.

A las que hoy claman es distintas plazas y calles.

A las y los que han abierto su corazón a una causa justa.

A las y los que suman su pluma, su voz, su imagen, su apoyo incansable, su ya inseparable compañía

A las niñas, niños y jóvenes que se ejercitan en la solidaridad y amor a su semejantes.

 

A TODOS USTEDES GRACIAS POR NO DEJARNOS SOLOS.

 

No los vamos a defraudar y cumpliremos con nuestra aportación para que a la historia señale como tantos millones de inmigrantes lo han hecho que también colaboramos a la fortaleza y grandeza de este GRAN PAIS.

 

Le reiteramos al Sr. Presidente Barack Obama sea audaz y honre su palabra.

 

Le señalamos al Congreso que esté a la altura de lo que justa y moralmente se le reclama.

 

NI UNO MAS! SI SE PUEDE!

 

 

– Colectivo Detenidos NWDC-T

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Petition on behalf of Hunger Strikers and latest press releases available at: www.notonemoredeportation.com/2014/03/10/detention-hunger-strike/