‘I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated’
Two weeks ago, eight men embarked on hunger strikes in Alabama’s Holman prison. They had all been transferred from the state’s other notoriously violent and dangerous prison, St. Clair. The official explanation for their placement in solitary was not punishment for disciplinary violations but for the “peace and tranquility of the institution” until a further determination could be made about their placement. A release issued on the men’s behalf said this was particularly troubling because the men, rather than having instigated violence, “were involved with inside organizations promoting peace in the institution, including Convicts Against Violence and the Free Alabama Movement.” [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]
The Free Alabama Movement, in December, called for authorities to allow a community task force to enter Holman. The impetus was what ThinkProgress described as “a slew of stabbings”—four in nine days—at Holman. Deadly violence has been skyrocketing across the state’s prisons. One man told ThinkProgress: “They basically let prisoners kill each other.” [Ella Fasler / ThinkProgress]
“The mortality rate in Alabama’s prisons has more than doubled over the past 10 years,” the Equal Justice Initiative reported last year. Deaths from non-natural causes greatly exceeded numbers in other states. The conditions in Alabama’s prisons have been the subject of multiple lawsuits.
The violence in Alabama prisons—and the reality of what we allow in these institutions nationwide—became harder to ignore over the weekend. Shaila Dewan of the New York Times wrote about receiving more than 2,000 photographs from the Southern Poverty Law Center “that evidence suggests were taken inside the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama.” The photographs showed “frontal portraits, close-ups of wounds,” people being treated for injuries, messages written in blood. [Shaila Dewan / New York Times]
The images were accompanied by a letter written by someone who identified as a corrections officer. The letter said the photos captured only a small fraction of the injuries men in the prison had inflicted on one another. The writer placed the blame for this violence on how people in prison are treated:
“The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men it will only continue to get worse.”
The Times decided to publish only a few of the photos. Dewan described the tension in deciding whether to publish the images:
“It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication—they are full of nudity, indignity and gore. It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.”
She also described her reaction to seeing them:
“As I scrolled through them, shock rose from my gut to my sternum. Was I looking at a prison, or a 19th-century battlefield?” [Shaila Dewan / New York Times]
“Shock” is something we may not feel often enough when we consider our prisons and jails. The person who smuggled the photos out of St. Clair wrote: “I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.” We know so little and we have also perhaps become comfortable with knowing so little.
Even the violence inflicted in our names, by state actors, can somehow fail to surprise anymore. We read about savage brutality from corrections officers and torture as an everyday tool. We hear how every rule we purport to teach children about how one person should treat another is turned upside down. People are reminded not of their worth but of their worthlessness in the eyes of their captors. Life is not sacred. Every hour brings indignities and degradations.
When we on the outside carry on with only a vague sense of what happens in prisons and jails, or forget to pay attention, or we grow numb, it is despite the best efforts of the people locked away. There have been two nationwide prison strikes in recent years, one in 2016 and another last year. Last year’s strike received unprecedented coverage. One of the centers of organizing was Holman prison in Alabama. People in prisons and jails and immigration detention centers across the country last year stopped working, stopped purchasing, and stopped eating—using every tool at their disposal to draw attention to the monstrousness of these institutions and put forward a vision for transforming them.