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Alabama Prisoners Say They’ve Been Punished For Trying to Reduce Violence

A wave of hunger strikes hit Alabama prisons as DOJ released a report calling the facilities “unconstitutional.”

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Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Corrections Facebook page.

The videos are grainy and shot through cell bars, but prisoners can be seen slumped on the ground outside, their arms tied behind their backs, with dark spots that appear to be blood on their white uniforms. One man on the ground appears to be bleeding from his head.

“The riot team, they just beat the folks to death,” someone says in one video. “Man that man is bloody as f–k right there,” a voice says in another video.

The 2015 videos purportedly showed the results of a shakedown in Alabama’s St. Clair prison. They are part of a series of YouTube videos posted under the account Free Alabama Movement by people incarcerated in the state and their supporters. The videos, which began appearing in 2013, reveal the inhumane conditions inside Alabama’s prison system and feature interviews with prisoners about their experiences in the criminal justice system and oversentencing in the state.

Violence in Alabama prisons grabbed national attention earlier this month when the Department of Justice issued a scathing report detailing how overcrowding, dismal conditions, a lack of staff, and deliberate indifference from prison officials contributed to rampant unchecked violence, sexual abuse, and extortion. But prisoners have tried to expose this reality for years.   

“In particular we have reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe conditions,” Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband and three U.S. attorneys wrote in a letter to Governor Kay Ivey.

This was not news to the people inside the facilities. Many Alabama prisoners say they have been punished for trying to improve these conditions and reduce violence. Dozens of prisoners have organized with the Free Alabama Movement, a prisoners’ rights group that calls for improved conditions, sentencing reforms, and an end to prison slavery, and Convicts Against Violence, a group of incarcerated people who practice peacekeeping and other de-escalation tactics. These organizers work with younger prisoners in their dorms as well as the leaders of the various gangs inside prison to de-escalate tensions and avoid conflict.

Recently, 10 Alabama prisoners involved with Convicts Against Violence or the Free Alabama Movement went on hunger strikes to protest being moved to solitary confinement. The men were put into solitary confinement after a massive raid in February at St. Clair. The raid enlisted 300 law enforcement officers to shake down the prison for contraband. During the raid, about 30 men were moved from St. Clair to Holman prison.

Nine of the 10 hunger strikers were placed in solitary as a result of the raid. None of the men was given a reason for the move, and none had any infractions. The Alabama Department of Corrections said the move was a “preventative measure.”

Many Alabama prisoners say they have been punished for trying to improve prison conditions and reduce violence.

Kinetik Justice, a co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, was the first prisoner to go on a hunger strike days after being placed in solitary at Holman. His main demand was to return to the general population—which the Corrections Department granted a week later.

Afterward, eight other prisoners who had been moved into solitary at Holman began hunger strikes. They demanded two things: the reasons why they were placed in solitary and to be returned to the general population.

All but three of the hunger strikers are back in the general population. Officials at Limestone Correctional Facility began force-feeding one prisoner, Kenneth Traywick, on April 21, after he refused food for two weeks to protest being moved to solitary confinement. He demands to be moved to the general population, to be transferred out of Limestone, for the Corrections Department to stop his “retaliatory transfers” from prison to prison, and an end to the use of solitary confinement in Limestone’s C block.

“For prisoners who have had all their autonomy and humanity stripped away, all they have is their bodies and spirits, so hunger strikes are one of the only nonviolent tools that they have to expose the system that is oppressing them,” said Mei Azaad, an organizer with Fight Toxic Prisons. Azaad does support work for people incarcerated in Alabama.

Alex (not his real name), who is incarcerated at Holman prison, said he spoke with some of the hunger strikers. He says the conditions they were placed in were unsanitary and lacked necessities.

“They were just put in the cell with no soap, no toiletries, no toothbrush, no nothing—nothing but a mattress. Some of them didn’t even have a sheet or blanket,” Alex told The Appeal. “They were transferred from St. Clair to Holman with nothing. The COs [corrections officers] took all their property. They were left in there for about a week, I think, before DOC even gave them any tissue.”

After the other eight Holman prisoners went on hunger strikes, the Corrections Department cut off the water in their cells. That meant that not only were the prisoners cut off from drinking water when they wanted, they also couldn’t flush the toilets in their cells.

“They was forced to stay in a cell with urine in the commode and defecating in the toilet and leaving it there,” Alex told The Appeal. “When they did cut the water on a day or two later, they tried to flush the toilet, but it overflowed. They didn’t get anything to clean up the cells.”

Members of the Free Alabama Movement and their supporters fear that the moves to solitary confinement are part of a larger strategy by corrections officials to separate well-established, older, respected prisoners from the general population. Supporters say that the Corrections Department will often move peacekeeping organizers to solitary confinement or transfer them to another prison when they see those prisoners start to gain influence.

If you don’t have people in leadership … who those inmates will actually look up to and respect, then you’re going to have nothing but total chaos and destruction.

Alex an organizer for Convicts Against Violence and the Free Alabama Movement

In 2016, Kinetik wrote an essay on the Free Alabama Movement’s website titled “The Holman Project,” in which he wrote that prison officials were moving respected, older prisoners in order to stoke violence.

“For the past several months a ‘swap out’ transfer program has been implemented in which older, mature and responsible, influential and respected prisoners have been sent away from Holman, only to be replaced with younger … and misguided youth,” Kinetik wrote.

“Dormitories have become ‘WAR ZONES’ where there is no security. As a result, many of these children have banded together in groups in order to protect one another from one another—with bloody and tragic results.”

Alex, an organizer for Convicts Against Violence and the Free Alabama Movement who asked to be identified only by his first name, has been transferred to nearly a dozen different prisons in Alabama. He said he thinks this practice of repeated transfers by the Corrections Department destabilizes prisons and contributes to the violence in those facilities.

“When you live in an environment that’s congested with a bunch of men who’s taken away from society for many years, possibly the rest of his life, most people don’t have good attitudes,” Alex said.

“When small things happen, they get blown out of proportion, and that’s when violence breaks out. So if you don’t have people in leadership … who those inmates will actually look up to and respect, then you’re going to have nothing but total chaos and destruction.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment on questions regarding the hunger strike, water cutoffs, and transferring older prisoners.

At the end of the report, the Department of Justice notified the state that they can file a lawsuit 49 days after releasing the report. The DOJ’s recommendations include hiring 500 additional correction officers, transferring prisoners to facilities outside of the Alabama Corrections Department, revising disciplinary processes so that they do not punish people subjected to and reporting abuse, and implementing cell and prison shakedowns so that 15 percent of all housing units are searched each day. The report also recommended repairing and replacing all broken locks in Alabama prisons within 30 days after being identified and installing cameras throughout the prison system within six months.

Many people say they doubt the DOJ’s recommendations will fix the longtime issues in Alabama’s prisons.

“Having more video cameras doesn’t actually make anyone safer, it just makes it documented,” Azaad said. “But if that is still in the hands of the people who are in power, who already don’t care about the violence right now, or already are instigating violence, just having it on record doesn’t inherently do anything.”

Organizers worry some of the proposals could make life more difficult for prisoners. The DOJ has recommended increasing regular raids like the one that landed organizers in solitary confinement. Ivey has billed the construction of three new megaprisons in Alabama as a solution to the ongoing human rights crisis in the state’s prisons.

Jenny, a mother of an Alabama prisoner who asked to be identified by her first name only, said she was skeptical that the DOJ’s investigation and involvement will actually help the people facing abuse and unsanitary conditions. She said Alabama officials might use the DOJ report to scare residents into supporting more prisons.

“What I want to know is, are you gonna shut these other prisons down?” she asked. “Don’t just build new prisons to build new prisons. The prisons aren’t what’s killing our men and women. COs and the way that everything is set up, the violence, that’s what’s killing them.”

”What are they going to do about it? And how long are they going to sit there? And how many more of our men and women have to be slaughtered in there?”