Three prisoners—Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council—who led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movementhave spent the last 18 months in solitary confinement. Authorities, unnerved by the protests that engulfed three prisons in the state, as well as by videos and pictures of abusive conditions smuggled out by the movement, say the men will remain in solitary confinement indefinitely.
The prison strike leaders are denied televisions and reading material. They spend at least three days a week, sometimes longer, without leaving their tiny isolation cells. They eat their meals seated on their steel toilets. They are allowed to shower only once every two days despite temperatures that routinely rise above 90 degrees.
The men have become symbols of a growing resistance movementinside American prisons. The prisoners’ work stoppages and refusal to co-operate with authorities in Alabama are modeled on actions that shook the Georgia prison systemin December 2010. The strike leaders argue that this is the only mechanism left to the 2.3 million prisoners across America. By refusing to work—a tactic that would force prison authorities to hire compensated labor or to induce the prisoners to return to their jobs by paying a fair wage—the neoslavery that defines the prison system can be broken. Prisoners are currently organizing in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Ala. He has been in prison for 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
“We do not believe in the political process,” said Ray, who spoke from the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., and who is serving life without parole. “We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline. We have focused our first boycott on McDonald’s. McDonald’s uses prisonersto process beef for paddies and package bread, milk, chicken products. We have called for a national Stop Campaign against McDonald’s. We have identified this corporation to expose all the others. There are too many corporations exploiting prison labor to try and take them all on at once.”