'I'm fighting for my life': Inside Alabama's prisons during ongoing labor strike

Inside Alabama’s prisons, men and women are refusing to go to work. Now, on day four of a prison labor strike that has garnered national attention, incarcerated people are living on two cold meals a day.

The Alabama Department of Corrections switched to this “holiday meal schedule” — serving only breakfast and dinner — on Monday in most, if not all, of its facilities. The department maintains that the switch was “logistically necessary” and not retaliatory.

Many inside the prison — and their free-world supporters — disagree.

Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and director of the university’s Prison and Jail Innovation Lab, has followed the situation unfolding in Alabama.

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“They're trying to starve them into submission,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

One man incarcerated at Ventress Correctional Facility, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation from prison staff, said he heard a captain in the prison tell correctional officers, “If they don’t want to work, starve them.”

The strike's origins

The labor strike began Sept. 26 in concert with a protest held outside the ADOC’s central office in Montgomery. Word of the strike circulated on social media and throughout the prisons in the weeks leading up to it. Diyawn Caldwell, one of the protest’s organizers, said she spoke with incarcerated people and advocates to come up with a list of demands she would deliver to ADOC the day of the protest.

The group had nine demands, including changes in sentencing laws and oversight of the state’s parole board, which has granted parole in recent years to so few eligible prisoners that those behind bars say they’ve lost hope for release.

Several said that the strike has been a long time coming.

Alabama’s prison system caught the attention of the nation in 2020 when the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state over the poor living conditions and treatment of prisoners, saying after a lengthy investigation that “Alabama violated and was continuing to violate the Constitution.”

But those problems haven’t gone away.

One man incarcerated at Donaldson Correctional Facility, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation from prison staff, said he felt like the conditions there have gotten worse since 2020. “They definitely haven’t gotten better,” said the man, who will be referred to as C. for clarity.

Rod Bell, who is incarcerated at Bibb Correctional Facility, said something similar.

“Nobody care,” Bell said. “Everybody turn a deaf ear and a blind eye.”

Now, the focus of the strike lies outside the prison’s walls — in the Alabama Legislature, in the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in the homes that only 6% of prisoners who were up for parole were able to return to last month.

C. knows that the ADOC can’t change those laws and statutes, but that’s also not entirely the point.

“I know [the ADOC] can’t change sentencing laws. They can’t do nothing about the parole board. They can't do anything about that,” C. said in a call using the facility’s wall phone. “Mostly we just want to be heard.”

Prison work

In Alabama and many other states, correctional facilities rely on incarcerated labor to carry out basic operations like cooking, laundry and working in the prison’s commissaries, stores where incarcerated people buy supplemental food as well as hygiene products. These items are usually more expensive than in a free-world store.

Incarcerated people are also paid pennies on the dollar to work in plants manufacturing license plates and chairs, desks, couches, mattresses, clothing and more which are sold by Alabama Correctional Industries.

A man at Fountain Correctional Facility, who asked to be referred to only by his first name because he feared being identified and retaliated against by prison staff, said he worked at the prison’s commissary before the labor strike. He received $3 a day for eight hours of work.

“You're working on free labor,” Louis said of the ADOC. “But you ain't letting us go. You're not giving us a chance of parole. So something’s got to break.”

Inside the prisons

Sources at all prisons the Montgomery Advertiser has been able to contact — St. Clair Correctional Facility, Bibb Correctional Facility, Donaldson Correctional Facility, Fountain Correctional Facility and Ventress Correctional Facility — say that the prisons have been “on lockdown” since the strike began and were still on lockdown as of Thursday morning. During lockdown, incarcerated individuals cannot leave their dorm or cell.

“Since the beginning of these work stoppages, controlled movement and other security measures have been deployed to maintain a secure environment,” the ADOC said in a news release from Wednesday.

ADOC has also stopped inmate visitation this weekend, Oct. 1-2, as a result of the strike. ADOC said in a release sent Thursday that the decision to not allow visitors was necessary due to "the impact on staff resources."

ADOC also confirmed on Wednesday that it was on a “holiday meal schedule.”

“Facilities have been on a holiday meal schedule since Monday. This schedule allows for two meals instead of three. This is not a retaliatory measure, but logistically necessary to ensure that other critical services are being provided,” the statement said.

A typical breakfast is one or two bologna or peanut butter sandwiches. A typical dinner may be another bologna sandwich, tuna sandwich or corn dogs. Those incarcerated are no longer able to visit the commissary for supplemental food, a practice most spoke with were doing before being put on lockdown.

In at least some prisons, diabetic inmates were given lunch as well, but the Advertiser hasn’t been able to confirm that diabetic inmates at other prisons were provided with lunch.

Bell, who is at Bibb, said that no consideration was given to the allergens in the food served.

“They haven’t considered the two individuals that [have] peanut-related allergies although we’ll trade the cheese sandwich or whatever to accommodate them,” Bell said.

After he heard about the ADOC’s statement from Wednesday, Bell returned to one phrase: “Critical services.”

“What critical service are they mentioning?” he asked. “I mean what they speaking of? Because it’s critical that you feed individuals.”

The men and women in the prisons are hungry, and the ADOC said it will continue to serve only two meals a day until the work stoppages end. But several say they’re able to fight through the hunger because they’re focused on something bigger.

“I’m fighting for my life,” said Louis. “I’m fighting for my life every day.”

This post was updated Sept. 30 with information about visitation cancelations.

Evan Mealins is the justice reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. Contact him at emealins@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanMealins.

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This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama prison labor strike: A look inside