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People in Alabama prisons go on a hunger strike over placement in solitary confinement


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: People in Alabama prisons go on a hunger strike over placement in solitary confinement

  • When running away means getting locked up

  • Women say Pennsylvania cop committed sexual assaults, recorded them on body camera

  • City cuts electricity, water to residents who can’t pay fines and fees

  • The questions about policing in California that SB 1421 should help answer

  • ‘The Whole Pie’ of mass incarceration

In the Spotlight

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]

Stories From The Appeal

 

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Filo/Getty Images

When Running Away Means Getting Locked Up. Washington detains more children for status offenses such as truancy and running away than any other state in the country. State lawmakers want to change that. [Charlotte West]

Women Say Pennsylvania Cop Committed Sexual Assaults, Recorded Them on Body Camera. Two women claim that a Pennsylvania cop sexually assaulted them, then recorded the incidents with a body worn camera. Other women have come forward with similar claims and the officer now faces a raft of criminal charges. [Joshua Vaughn]

Stories From Around the Country

City cuts electricity, water to residents who can’t pay fines and fees: Rewire.News, in collaboration with Scalawag magazine, investigated how a city in Georgia takes “unpaid fines from the municipal court—typically for small violations, such as driving with a suspended license or failure to register a pit bull—and tacks them onto utility bills, using the threat of losing water and electricity to try to get residents to pay.”  When a local NAACP branch heard about the problem a few years ago, it investigated and found that the practice was part of the city’s utility ordinance, dating to the early 2000s. In 2017, seven residents, the NAACP, Project South, and the Southern Center for Human Rights sued the city for discrimination. Rewire.News reports that attorneys found that “90 percent of the residents subject to the court debt policy were Black (the city’s population is just 48 percent Black),” and “they largely lived in the segregated Black part of town.” The city also completely denies access to utilities to undocumented immigrants.The founder of a hospitality house for immigrants linked this to the town’s history. “Utilities have been a form of social control [in LaGrange]. … It just smacks of an old structure that just won’t die.” [Lewis Raven Wallace / Rewire.News]

The questions about policing in California that SB 1421 should help answer: Senate Bill 1421, a California law intended to bring transparency to police discipline records, went into effect Jan. 1. Thirty-three newsrooms across the state have come together as the California Reporting Project, which “has filed requests with more than 600 law enforcement agencies and so far received records of hundreds of incidents” involving the use of force, dishonesty, or sexual misconduct on the part of officers. The Los Angeles Times, one of the outlets participating in the project, lays out four important questions on which these documents should shed some light. These include questions about the number of people killed by police, the consequences for officer misconduct, the number of officers still on police forces after false statements or reports, and, finally, the number of fired officers rehired by other departments. [Ben Poston and Maya Lau / Los Angeles Times]

‘The Whole Pie’ of mass incarceration: The Prison Policy Institute has published “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.” The report is meant to provide a picture of—and address misconceptions about—who is incarcerated in this country. It provides a comprehensive look at the “almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.” Among the issues it urges paying attention to are those related to sentence lengths for violent offenses, the need to simultaneously reduce the number of incarcerated people and racial and ethnic disparities in who is incarcerated, and the huge impact that private service providers (far more than private prisons) have on people in prison. [Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner / Prison Policy Initiative]

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