In his 29 years in prison, David Bonner has mopped floors, cooked hot dogs in the cafeteria and, most recently, cut sheets of aluminum into Alabama license plates.
The last job paid $2 a day – enough to buy a bar of soap at the commissary or make a short phone call.
“This is slavery,” said Bonner, who is 51 and serving a life sentence for murder. “We’re forced to work these jobs and we get barely anything.”
He was speaking on a mobile phone smuggled into his 8-by-12 foot cell in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility, where he and dozens of other inmates were on strike.
They’re among a growing national movement of prisoners who have staged work stoppages or hunger strikes this fall to protest dismal wages, abusive guards, overcrowding and poor healthcare, among other grievances.
Prisoners’ rights activists say the coordinated effort is one of the largest prison protests in modern history, drawing in at least 20,000 inmates in at least 24 prisons in 23 states.
State officials have confirmed inmate protests in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida since early September. In California, at least 300 inmates have been involved in hunger strikes at jails in Santa Clara and Merced counties.
In several states, including Virginia, Ohio and Texas, officials have denied claims by activists that strikes have occurred.
Alabama officials acknowledged the protest at the Holman prison, 52 miles northeast of Mobile, though they said it was limited to a one-day strike by 60 inmates who worked in the kitchen and license plate plant – far less extensive than the 10-plus days in September and October that activists described.
“I know there are inmates who are saying there is this big, wide work stoppage but that is just not the case,” said Alabama Dept. of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton.
Horton denied inmate reports that the prison had been on lockdown in response to strikes, which he described as “peaceful.” But he also said he understood some of prisoners’ complaints about living conditions. Holman is “overcrowded and understaffed,” Horton said, adding that state officials were working to fix the problem.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who visited Holman earlier this year, has described the state corrections system as being “in crisis” and has pushed for funding to build additional prisons.
Known by inmates as “the slaughterhouse” for its death row, the maximum-security Holman prison is considered one of the most violent facilities in the South.
Nearly 1,000 inmates occupy a space built for half that many. Tensions have been escalating throughout this year.
In March, riots broke out. In September, a prisoner stabbed a corrections officer to death. In October, after an inmate committed suicide, prisoners said guards had ignored their screams to come and help the man.
Amid the protests, the U.S. Department of Justice announced this month that it was launching a civil rights investigation into prisons across Alabama to determine “whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners” and “from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers.”
Activists celebrated. “I’ve been doing this work for four years, and we’ve never gotten this kind of attention to prisoners’ rights,” said Azzurra Crispino, an activist based in Austin, Texas. “There’s a momentum.”
Crispino is a spokesperson for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a group that is part of the Industrial Workers of the World union and has played a key role in coordinating the protests. It has connected prisoners to one another and outside activists, and rallied activists to flood prisons with letters and phone calls on behalf of inmates.
Most states have a prisoner-rights organization headquartered at one of its major prisons. The Free Alabama Movement, for example, is based at the Holman facility.
Source: Los Angeles Times | Jaweed Kaleem