“I have my own goals and aspirations that I want to accomplish, but as far as anything being offered by the [Department of Corrections], there’s nothing but trouble, nothing but this physical, this oppression, this continuous oppression,” Michael Wheeler recalled in a surreptitiously videotaped interview from inside Alabama’s William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility.
Wheeler is a prisoner and a member of the Free Alabama Movement, an organization of prisoners, their families, and their supporters advocating for the rights of the incarcerated in the state’s infamous prison system. Free Alabama is one of the groups that originated the call to action for a national prison strike against slave labor, which began on September 9.
Wheeler’s testimony, recently published on Free Alabama’s YouTube page, is a rare example of a prisoner’s stories and experiences shared without the monitoring or interference of prison administrators, who typically oversee all inmate communications.
By updating social media accounts via contraband cell phones, Free Alabama broke through the silence and secrecy that enshrouds correctional facilities to give the public an uncensored view inside Alabama prisons. Their YouTube channel and other accounts feature unedited interviews with prisoners, tours of decrepit and dirty prison units, and shocking scenes of brutality and violence.
In a 20-minute interview published this week, Wheeler discusses his perspectives on mass incarceration, the 2016 election, and day-to-day life for prisoners at Donaldson, which has been the subject of lawsuits in recent years regarding violence and overcrowding.
Wheeler was 15 years-old when he was arrested for robbery and assault ten years ago. He shot but did not kill someone in the course of his crime. After he was arrested, he said officers questioned him without his mother present and put him in a booking cell for two days before sending him to general population in an adult prison. He has been incarcerated ever since.
“They came and got me, and I seen my mother outside the courtroom crying,” he said. “They didn’t even certify me [as an adult prisoner]. I was in jail, I was going to court for something else the day before, and they just came and got me before I could even go in the court and get sentenced.”
He said he never went to trial because his attorney encouraged him to plead out, and he still has at least ten years left on his sentence, notwithstanding parole. He is not exactly sure when he’s going home. “Whenever the doors open,” he said, shaking his head.
Donaldson is a level 6 security prison, the highest level in the state. Wheeler has been turned down by the parole board for three years because officials said he had a “problem with authority,” despite the fact he has never been issued write-ups, disciplinary reports, or failures to obey.
“It’s the same thing as slaves on the plantation. It’s as if were not even humans, like back in those times—the same things, but just modern day. Modernize it. We had chattel slavery, and now they have us under economic slavery. But it’s the same physical force. The brutality is the same.”
He said he tried to take every program offered in the prison and worked as a brick maker. He tried to pursue an education behind bars and earn his GED, but said the process to do so is incredibly difficult.
Wheeler has been in and out of segregation a few times. Without any real programming for prisoners like him, he is left to spend his time locked in the unit “all day, every day.”
He described general population as having benches, televisions, and a “whole bunch of lost people.” There are no books or education materials available; no pencils, papers, notepads, classes, or programs.
Medical care is also abysmal, even for prisoners who obviously need it. Wheeler described how he is caring for a 76 year-old incarcerated man, who has suffered multiple strokes named Richard Lake. “He’s not even supposed to be in prison,” Wheeler said. “He’s supposed to be in a better environment. I just had a few words with an officer about getting him to the infirmary and here it is, 11:30, and he still hasn’t gone since 8:30.”
When asked for his thoughts on the election, Wheeler said, “We are black men, we don’t got no vote, we been disenfranchised and we are subject to economic oppression, so our voice isn’t really heard. They don’t allow media to get in [the prison] and we’re limited to the media we can get out. So our voice is a voice that has never been heard in this platform.”
Wheeler believes that, if elected, Hillary Clinton is going to continue many of the harmful policies of her husband’s administration. He said he had “nothing” to say about Donald Trump. But if he could vote, Wheeler said he would. And even though he’s not on the ticket, Wheeler said he would vote for Bernie Sanders.
“He would be more for the black men trying to raise the black men out of here,” Wheeler said. He had read about Sanders being arrested for protesting to save housing in black communities, and Wheeler felt his actions were sincere. He felt Sanders was the best candidate for African Americans, and he wants everyone to be able to vote.
“I love the people,” Wheeler said. “I love the struggle. I’m gonna continue to represent the struggle. I’m a part of it every day, but what I would like to do is spread awareness. I want to support the black mothers,our first teachers.”
“The Bible says we are our best teachers, but these are our first teachers,” he said. “I feel as if the young brothers need to be stronger educated so they can change their way of thinking and have a proper knowledge of self and know thyself—know their history.”
Wheeler argued that the media and education system teach black children nothing about their history. “Black men are nothing but a labor force for them. They teaching us things like, ‘Go to school, learn how to count, learn how to read, to be a member of society to help the rich get richer and poor get poorer.’ They don’t teach them any moral responsibilities. They don’t have anything solid to stand on.”
“So I see why when you become a beacon of light they try to destroy you or tear down your image or silence you by putting you in lockup and depriving us of a message, of light, of reading material, paper,” Wheeler said. “They don’t want that voice to ever get out because they have created an image of young black men, and this is not the image they created.”
Correction 10/8/16: a previous version of this article stated the video was taken at Holman Correctional Facility, when it is from William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility.