An ongoing boycott and strike inside Alabama’s prison system faced retaliation before it began. 

On December 31, incarcerated people at Kilby Correctional Facility held a dorm meeting to discuss the boycott and strike. Witnesses told Shadowproof that prison officers with the last names Reese, Landrum, and Smith beat multiple participants.

A week later, an incarcerated person who goes by the name Swift Justice was thrown into a closet-sized cell without lights, cleaning supplies, or a mattress at Kilby Correctional Facility. 

He hasn’t eaten since the Alabama Department of Corrections placed him in solitary confinement 19 days ago for his role in organizing the New Year’s 30-day economic boycott and work strike with the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a group organizing against prison slavery and mass incarceration in Alabama. Swift hopes that his self-induced starvation will help expose “sadistic and tortuous, violent acts” committed by guards against people incarcerated at Kilby. 

According to FAM’s press release, it is targeting slave-labor conditions and prison service companies that utilize monopoly contracts with the government to exploit families through price gouging.

Another target of the strike, the state-run “Corrections Industry,” pays several hundred incarcerated people wages of .25 to .75 cents per hour to construct furniture, clothing, janitorial supplies, barbecue grills, and more. Non-industry workers are not paid. 

“In Alabama we have slavery,” incarcerated FAM organizer Kinetik Justice, also known as Robert Earl Council, told Shadowproof. The “only way it’s gon’ stop is if the slaves stop, the slave master ain’t never gon’ stop because he benefits from it.” The political system in Alabama is constructed to keep Black people at the “bottom of the barrel,” he added.   

There has been some debate in recent years over the extent to which prison labor exploitation has driven mass incarceration, and whether it constitutes a new form of slavery. 

Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues against framing prisons as modern slave plantations in her seminal work Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis And Opposition in Globalizing California. A small percentage of incarcerated people work in America, Gilmore notes. Most are idle and have no access to resources or programming. 

Instead, incarceration has been driven by a complex set of factors, including the need to contain a surplus labor population in a post-industrialized society, pressure from powerful prison guard unions, and austerity budgets that prioritize incarceration. 

Professor Robert Chase, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Stony Brook and author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners Rights in Postwar Americasays we must differentiate the South from other historical contexts. 

“Southern states have the nation’s highest incarceration rates and the largest prison populations. The tradition of prison labor and work has historically driven the need for such high incarceration rates and prison populations,” he told Shadowproof.

“Beginning with the South’s embrace of the convict lease system following the Civil War, southern prison systems have a long history of exploiting prison labor to modernize the U.S. South, at the expense of shockingly high incarceration rates for African American people.”

As of 2017, Black people made up 28 percent of Alabama’s population and 54 percent of the prison population.  

Kinetik Justice believes parole decisions—which maintain an 85 percent denial rate in Alabama—are influenced by the agency’s desire to maintain its revenue flow. In that case, a smaller prison population would mean less funding.   

Still, striking has proven effective for drawing public attention to prisoners’ humanity and in achieving some demands. It is unclear how many people have participated in the work strike. On January 11, according to Kinetik Justice, incarcerated workers at Fountain Correctional Facility went on strike demanding the restoration of hot water and visitation. After a nearly day-long standoff, officials fixed the water. People seen as instigators were transferred to other facilities, he said.

Unable to participate in the work strike, eleven people in solitary confinement at Kilby went on hunger strike on or around January 1. Several days later, Sgt. Williams ordered Officer Landrum to beat hunger striker Ronnie Miller in the face and torso, according to hunger striker Bernard Jones. “We are not safe, but we will not fold,” said Jones. 

Swift Justice, who was in the general population at the time of the assault, said that he has seen Miller assaulted by guards “many times.”  

On the fifth day, hunger strikers said that guards maced them in their cells. 

In a request for comment, the ADOC did not confirm or deny the assaults. “As for any alleged assault, ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and any actions taken by inmates or staff will be thoroughly investigated. As the inquiry into the alleged assault is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available at a later date,” it wrote. 

Strikers’resistance follows a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against Alabama and the Department of Corrections on December 9. The DOJ wrote that Alabama “fails to provide adequate protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, fails to provide safe and sanitary conditions, and subjects prisoners to excessive force at the hands of prison staff,” in its prisons for men. 

The agency began its investigation in 2016, after two riots and a FAM-led strike put a spotlight on horrid conditions inside Alabama’s male prisons. Its report found reasonable cause to believe ADOC is violating the Eighth Amendment which forbids “cruel or unusual punishment.” Negotiations stemming from the report failed to produce meaningful change, the DOJ said

The resulting lawsuit describes a culture of retaliation against incarcerated people, echoing allegations voiced in another lawsuit filed by Kinetik Justice, who has spent a majority of the last five years in solitary confinement. 

He alleged he was subjected to prolonged solitary confinement for speaking out against gambling and contraband rings run by staff at Limestone Correctional Facility. Proceeds from the rings were paid to prisoner informants, according to the lawsuit.   

Swift Justice hopes to sue ADOC for the retaliation against him and other hunger strikers. 

“I request outside organizers to find an attorney that will represent me and other inside organizers,” he wrote it a letter while in solitary confinement. “DOC will continue to attack us because they feel untouchable. These attacks will definitely escalate.” 

To cover legal fees, Fight Toxic Prisons, a grassroots prison advocacy group, started a GoFundMe fundraiser, which has accrued about $1,900 of its $3,000 goal as of the time of this writing.

The situation is increasingly urgent. “We [prisoners] are becoming extreme because our situation is extreme,” said Kinetik. “We got the virus running around, we got people OD’ing…This is an irredeemable system.” 

As Alabama Governor Kay Ivey plans to build three new men’s prisons—reminiscent of expansion projects during the 70s and 80s to purportedly address overcrowding and violence in Alabama prisons—incarcerated organizers and abolitionists will keep stressing mass releases, an end to slavery, and the redistribution of funds to marginalized communities as a path to true liberation.

Ella Fassler

Ella Fassler

Ella Fassler is an independent writer and researcher based in Rhode Island. Her work has been featured in The Nation, The Appeal, Slate, OneZero, Truthout and elsewhere.