Unheard Voices OTCJ is a group of organizers working to confront injustices in the United States’ systems of mass incarceration. Two volunteers were conducting outreach to family members of prisoners at Holman Prison in Alabama on the side of a highway when law enforcement insisted they were trespassing on state property.
On August 18, an officer, who identified himself as Sergeant Davis, urged volunteers to go to a “designated protest area,” away from where visiting family members turn.
Mona Song and Queen Dara stood on the side of Route 21. They were able to give leaflets to at least eight people who stopped to speak with them.
Video shows Song saying, “Everyone that we’ve talked to that’s going to visit family so far has been really encouraging and receptive to what we’re doing.” They discussed how visitation may be eliminated by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and connected it to a trip planned for Washington, D.C., where organizers intend to travel with family of prisoners to speak their truth at an event in September.
Unheard Voices OTCJ would like to ramp up pressure on the Justice Department to go beyond their report on abuses and corruption in the Alabama prison system and take action to hold officials accountable in some manner.
Sgt. Davis and another officer, who identified himself as Lieutenant Wilson, watched the volunteers on the side of the highway from white pickup trucks. Both were apparently part of the ADOC K-9 Unit. They called the Escambia Sheriff Department and an officer, who identified himself as Deputy Peebles, arrived to move the volunteers from the area or cite them with “trespassing.”
As Song recalled, the deputy turned it into a “public hazard issue.”
“They’re going to say you’re slowing down traffic,” Song told Shadowproof. “At the same time, we want to make the argument that our right to free speech and doing this outreach, which is volunteer—It’s not even a protest. It’s just free speech and people are voluntarily slowing down to talk to us—that right should trump any arbitrary rules authored by prison officials that don’t want us to be there and simply are going to push us around until we push back.”
Video shows the officers claiming during their interaction that a policy was possibly adopted to control the presence of demonstrators two or three years ago. However, no specific policy was ever cited. Neither of the officers said anything about why the change in policy may have occurred.
According to Song, when they moved to the “designated protest area,” “nobody stopped at all.” Visitors coming from one direction cannot see them because they do not pass on the side of the road with the facility. Visitors coming from the other direction drive around a bend at 50-55 mph at least. They may see them in a rearview mirror. So there is very little opportunity for interaction with family members of prisoners.
A press release from Unheard Voices OTCJ indicates the volunteers consulted with lawyers, who are also a part of the organization.
“There is absolutely no law that forbids law-abiding citizens from being on a public road right of way and distributing pamphlets,” declared Mobile Attorney Donna Wesson Smalley. “These were not protestors, they were doing a public outreach targeting friends and family who voluntarily come to Holman to see loved ones.”
Tuscaloosa Attorney Michael Cornwell added, “Those volunteers have every right to be anywhere on public property, so long as they are not breaking the law, and not entering the designated prison property.”
In the video, it appears the officers are claiming the side of the road is “prison property.” They also are treating the volunteers as if they are protesting, even though they were not there for that purpose.
Asked about why it is important to do outreach with family of prisoners, Song replied, “Doing outreach outside of some of these facilities is the best way to reach those most impacted by the ongoing violence inside these prisons, by the ongoing corruption. This is the way that we can reach out to folks that otherwise are oftentimes pretty isolated.”
“It also proves that there’s a presence of people that care and are fighting with them, alongside them, to try to improve conditions,” Song added.
“For example, at Holman, they are trying to restrict even the visiting family members from gathering or communicating with each other because they patrol the parking lot, where they wait before it’s time to lineup to go in and see their family members, and they tell women who are talking to each other from their cars or standing outside their cars that they need to be in their cars. They need to not be talking to each other.”
“It’s a smart move by the Alabama Department of Corrections to be trying to limit free speech, communications, between folks that are the ones that are most impacted and the ones that are ready to engage in activities to try to confront the injustices, especially at a very critical time in Alabama when national media has its eyes on Alabama after the Department of Justice report,” Song acknowledged.
The report from the Justice Department, which was widely covered, highlighted routine violations in Alabama facilities of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.” It detailed rampant violence, rape and sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths that occur on a regular basis in the facilities.
According to PBS, “Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., with 840 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2016. That figure is 27 percent higher than the national average, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth.”
Unheard Voices OTCJ is one of several groups trying to build a movement to confront systemic oppression in facilities, like the ones in Alabama. But efforts are stymied if law enforcement is able to corral volunteers into some free speech zone that is out of sight and out of mind.
Song concluded, “If we don’t push back, then where do our free speech rights begin or end?”