People in Alabama prisons go on a hunger strike over placement in solitary confinement
On Monday, eight men incarcerated in Holman Prison in Alabama launched a hunger strike. Holman is one of the state’s maximum-security prisons and the location of Alabama’s death row. The hunger strike began after the men were transferred from another notorious prison—St.Clair—on Feb. 28 and immediately placed in solitary confinement. [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]
The eight men—Mario Avila, Antonio Jackson Jr., Corey Burroughs, Earl Manassa, Kotoni Tellis, Tyree Cochran, Marcus Lee and Earl Taylor—were among 30 transferred from St. Clair to Holman. According to the state Department of Corrections, three of the men ended their strike by the end of the day Monday. [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]
Alabama’s prisons are notorious for violence, even deadly violence, and incarcerated people and advocates have been trying to draw attention to it for years. In December, the Equal Justice Initiative calculated that the homicide rate in Alabama’s prisons is 600 percent higher than the national average, at more than 34 per 100,000 people. The Free Alabama Movement, a campaign of incarcerated people that is organizing for the end of prison slavery, called for a fact-finding mission to bring public scrutiny to issues at Holman after four stabbing incidents in nine days in December. A billion-dollar plan to build new prisons is under consideration, and in 2016 the Corrections Department commissioner cited the doubling of violence in Alabama prisons over the span of five years as a justification for the construction of new “mega-prisons.” [Ella Fassler / Think Progress]
Holman and St. Clair have been the sites of much of the violence and some of the worst officer brutality. In 2016, Alice Speri of The Intercept reported on a deadly riot at Holman Prison. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) had brought a class-action lawsuit against the Corrections Department in 2014 on behalf of incarcerated people at St. Clair prison, claiming a failure to address dangerous conditions and a staggering rate of violence. The EJI had previously requested that the prison’s warden, Carter Davenport, be removed. Instead, he was moved to Holman, where he instituted dramatic cuts to programs and presided over a worsening of brutality. Davenport was stabbed during the 2016 riot and subsequently retired. [Alice Speri / The Intercept]
Last month’s transfer of people from St. Clair to Holman followed a much-publicized contraband search for which the Corrections Department called in multiple law enforcement agencies. The decision to transfer the men, however, was unrelated to the contraband search. The state appears to have responded to the attention on violence by conducting the massive search and transferring prisoners, but a spokesperson for the Corrections Department clarified that the transfers were unrelated to the outcome of the search. [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]
Furthermore, the men were not placed in solitary for any disciplinary purpose. [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser] A news release issued on their behalf said that the men had been told they would “remain in Restrictive Housing in Preventative status for peace and tranquility of the institution.” The release stated that their placement in solitary “is alarming seeing as multiple of these 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]
A lawyer representing the men told the Montgomery Advertiser: “Some ask why a hunger strike? It’s certainly a very difficult thing to go through and is medically dangerous to a point, but its [sic] nonviolent and is basically the only method they have to draw the public to their plight.” [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]
The hunger strike by the eight men this week was preceded by one last week by another one of the men who had been transferred. [Mike Cason / Al.com] Robert Earl Council, known as Kinetik Justice, is well-known within the state prisons and was influential in the national prison strike in 2016. Between 2014 and 2018, he had reportedly spent 54 months in solitary confinement. At the time of last year’s national prison strike, another widespread effort that was coordinated from Holman, he was still in segregation. He was released the day the strike ended, according to supporters. [Connor Sheets / Al.com] He was transferred to the infirmary on the sixth day of his hunger strike this month.
The state’s use of solitary confinement has been under intense scrutiny. In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities and Advocacy Center filed Braggs v. Dunn in federal court, alleging dangerous and life-threatening conditions in prisons. In 2017, after a two-month trial, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson found that the mental health care in prisons was “horrendously inadequate,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and led to a “skyrocketing suicide rate” among people who were incarcerated.
Earlier this year, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to the current crisis of deaths by suicide in Alabama prisons—13 in 14 months. Judge Thompson issued a 66-page decision that said the state’s Department of Corrections was “deliberately indifferent” in its failure to evaluate the mental health of people placed in solitary confinement, including those whose mental health deteriorates while in solitary.
The group Unheard Voices released a transcript of communication from the hunger strikers:
“I am on a peaceful hunger strike. I am not suicidal … but I’m doing this because I’m being held in Holman correctional facility segregation without any justifiable reasons why. I was taken from St. Clair correctional facility, general population, on February 28th, 2019, without any incident, nor disciplinary infractions. I’ve not been involved in any Riots or escapes. … I feel as if my U.S. constitutional rights are being violated and I’m being deprived of my liberties, being placed in segregation without any due process of law [sic].” [Andrew J. Yawn / Montgomery Advertiser]