As members of New York University’s Prison Education Program Research Lab, we collaborate on faculty–student research, using peer-based ethnographic methods to assess the human and economic costs of incarceration. To date, our work has focused on the effects of austerity on prison conditions and on the interactions between automobile ownership, policing, debt, and criminalization. Our current project, on carceral labor, draws heavily on the work experience of formerly incarcerated men and women. The well-documented prison strikes of the last decade are an important part of the project, and especially because they have taken the form of effective work stoppages involving tens of thousands of incarcerated people across the nation. However, unlike the constitutional initiatives, currently being pursued in many states, to “end the exception” in the Thirteenth Amendment, they have not been aimed exclusively at the inequity of forced labor behind the walls. Because the range of demands on the part of strikers is much broader than the ending of involuntary servitude, they invite comparison with the heyday of the prisoner rights movements in the 1960s and ’70s.
In our trips to Alabama to conduct interviews, we found that the central role played by the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) in the recent wave of prison strikes belongs to a long history of mobilizing resistance to racial injustice in the state. Alabama’s decade in the cockpit of the civil rights movement is the most well-known. But the state also hosted a significant chapter in the prisoner rights movement. In 1972 a militant group named Inmates for Action (IFA) formed in William C. Holman Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Atmore known, at that time, as “The Slaughterhouse” for its high incidence of guard brutality, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and rape culture. In 1974 the group organized a unified work strike to protest the barbaric conditions in the facility along with the beating and killing of prisoners on the work farms. One of the guards taken hostage during that action was killed, initiating a long season of retributive terror unleashed against the IFA. Four of the group’s leaders—George Dobbins, Tommy Dotson, Charles Beasley, and Frank X. Moore—were killed while in prison. Support groups on the outside waged a guerrilla campaign against the police under the motto, “Kill one of ours, we kill two of yours.”
The IFA’s efforts to highlight the oppression inside the state’s prisons helped to expose the appalling conditions to the public and triggered a series of lawsuits that eventually resulted in a federal takeover of the state system in 1976. The judicial ruling in that consolidated class action, issued by legendary desegregationist jurist Frank Johnson, held that “the rampant violence and jungle atmosphere existing throughout Alabama’s penal institutions” violated “any current judicial definition of cruel and unusual punishment.” Johnson’s Eighth Amendment ruling set a precedent that was closely followed in several other states, breaking with the traditional “hands-off” doctrine of deferring to states when it comes to running their prisons.
Yet despite these federal interventions, the violent, dehumanizing prison conditions that motivated the IFA’s formation have only gotten worse in the decades of mass incarceration that followed. In 2007 the Department of Justice (DOJ) returned to Alabama to intervene at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, concluding that it had the highest rate of sexual assaults among women’s prisons in the nation. In response to a damning inquiry, the state was forced, in 2016, to accept federal monitoring over substantial changes in the prison’s operations. Shortly afterward, a larger, statewide investigation was launched to assess the system’s grossly overcrowded and understaffed prisons. The DOJ’s reports, in 2019 and 2020, once again concluded that the system was in violation on multiple counts, and a lawsuit alleging “deliberate indifference” on the part of ADOC officials was filed in December 2020. The trial is scheduled to take place in 2024.
It became evident, through our interviews with activists, lawyers, and formerly incarcerated men and women, that no one is betting against a second federal takeover after the trial is concluded. Over the last decade, in-custody homicide levels, suicide rates, and violence overall have soared to levels that are by far the highest in the country; the year 2022 closed out with 270 deaths reported. On our recent visits, we took testimony about the humanitarian crisis: Parole is being systematically denied, violence is omnipresent, facilities are in states of advanced decay and sanitary crisis, guards are few and far between, and Death Row is filled with men who would not be there in any other state. (Alabama is the only state that allows people to be sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury, and also the only state which allows a judge to send someone to Death Row by overruling a jury verdict of life without parole.)
That such extreme conditions would lead to resistance behind the walls is no surprise. But by launching a series of labor strikes from 2014 onward that attracted solidarity actions across the nation, FAM has given many of us hope that a new iteration of the prisoners’ rights movement is underway.
FAM was founded by Melvin Ray (Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun) and Robert Earl Council (Kinetik Justice) in 2013 at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama. Before arriving at St. Clair, Bennu and Kinetik had both received a legal education from law classes in Holman. They had also received lessons in political education from a fellow prisoner on the same block, Richard “Mafundi” Lake, one of the IFA founders. When they were both transferred to St. Clair, where cell phones were more accessible, they developed a vision to update the communication methods of Mafundi’s earlier generation of radicals for the twenty-first century.
Bennu and Kinetik were aware that incarcerated organizers in Georgia had used cell phones to coordinate a work stoppage in six or more facilities in 2010, in order to demand a living wage for their labor. Noting that Georgia authorities were able to shape media coverage of the strike, they decided to use their phones not just to communicate among peers but also to publicize images of Alabama’s deplorable prison conditions to the outside world, through YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms. In addition to leveraging social media to control the public narrative, the duo also produced and circulated estimates of how much revenue their unpaid labor was generating for the state.
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After several months of building their base, FAM initiated its first set of actions, calling two strikes, the first in January 2014, which spread to three prisons, and the second three months later, in April 2014. A widely circulated 2015 manifesto, Let the Crops Rot in the Fields, argued that a freedom movement had to be focused on the economic base of the modern prison–industrial complex—the unpaid prison labor generating profits for states and companies. Shutdowns should be aimed at stopping production. Just as important, Let the Crops Rot in the Fields issued a call for prisoners in each state to draft a Freedom Bill, with a list of demands for reforms.
By 2016 the capacity for coordinated action had grown beyond Alabama. The Free Mississippi Movement, Free Ohio Movement, and Free Virginia Movement had all formed, along with solidarity clusters in other states. A nationwide strike was called for September 9, 2016, and was observed in twenty-four states—including Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Oregon, Illinois, Virginia, California, Georgia, Washington, South Carolina, Michigan, and Florida—and as many as 57,000 prisoners participated in 46 facilities. A second nationwide Shut ’Em Down strike was called in 2018, from August 21—the forty-seventh anniversary of George Jackson’s death—to the Attica anniversary date of September 9.
After the 2014 and 2016 strikes, incarcerated organizers increasingly started to question their reliance on work stoppages as the primary strike tactic. Not everyone in prison worked, especially those in solitary confinement, and many who were employed in work-release programs were reluctant to endanger their job placements and their earned “good time” credits so close to the end of their sentence. In response, FAM circulated a call to “redistribute the pain.” Prisoners who wanted to show solidarity could also participate through hunger strikes and commissary boycotts, while supporters on the outside were encouraged to protest too. The 2018 strike, encompassing all these varied tactical forms, was widely observed, stretching in reach from the Deep South all the way to Nova Scotia, Canada. Harsh reprisals and repression followed, as authorities ordered lockdowns and other collective punishments.
Post-pandemic, the movement burst back to life on September 26, 2022, when prisons in Alabama engaged in a strike to protest rapidly worsening conditions. Again, the capacity to coordinate mass action across the system was impressive. It was even more remarkable that the organizers themselves suffered no retaliation from their peers, especially when the strategy of collective punishments, such as food deprivation and shakedowns, kicked in. These tactics are generally deployed by prison administrators, officers, and staff to create a division in the ranks, separating those who can’t withstand the pressure. The strategy is designed to foster violence among the incarcerated population, which, in this instance, did not occur.
In these circumstances, successful organizing depends on two axes: a “communication tree” across facilities and among support groups on the outside, and accords between the street organizations and the heads of spiritual communities. Kinetik, who has spent most of the last decade in solitary and has been beaten several times for his organizing efforts, explained to us:
The way we operate is that the heads of the Crips, the Bloods, and the Disciples get together with the heads of the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, and various white groups, and once we have an agreement, then we go back to our groups, and then we commit guys to be the security on the block.
In March of this year, another strike was in the planning, but fell afoul of divisions that had opened up within the communication tree.
For ten years now, FAM has pursued a nonviolent line in the face of those who advocate more hardline tactics. Despite his efforts to avoid an “Attica situation,” Kinetik says that he has little faith that Alabama authorities will “see the error of their ways” simply as a result of FAM’s strikes. He is particularly frustrated, like everyone else with whom we talked, that federal agencies have not yet intervened in the emergency: How high must the body count grow before they step in? But he is “hoping and praying that someone will intervene to stop this before it turns into a bloodbath.”
“I can smell rain,” he told us. “I ain’t gotta see the clouds in the sky, I smell it coming. . . . I can smell blood in the air.”
Image: BP Miller/Unsplash/Inquest