Striking Prisoners in Alabama Accuse Officials of Using Food as Weapon

Alabama prisoners who have been on strike for 10 days are accusing officials of retaliating against their protest by starving them.

Alabama prisoners who have been on strike for 10 days over unpaid labor and prison conditions are accusing officials of retaliating against their protest by starving them. The coordinated strike started on May 1, International Workers’ Day, when prisoners at the Holman and Elmore facilities refused to report to their prison jobs and has since expanded to Staton, St. Clair, and Donaldson’s facilities, according to organizers with the Free Alabama Movement, a network of prison activists.

Prison officials responded by putting the facilities on lockdown, partially to allow guards to perform jobs normally carried out by prisoners. But prisoners told The Intercept that officials also punished them by serving meals that are significantly smaller than usual, a practice they have referred to as “bird feeding.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment, though earlier this month they told local reporters that inmates had “not given any demands, or a reason for refusing to work.”

Prisoners told The Intercept they are protesting severe overcrowding, poor living conditions, and the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery and servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” thus sanctioning the legality of forced, unpaid prison labor. Prisoners said they have voiced their requests in meetings with prison officials but were told their demands were “too great.” Last month, after riots broke out at Holman prison twice in four days, prisoners also circulated a list of demands, including federal assistance, the release of inmates who are eligible for parole, and compensation for “mental pain and physical abuse.” They are planning to circulate an updated list today.

A prisoner serving a life sentence at Holman prison shared photos of his meals in text messages over the last several days. One picture shows a meal made of two slices of white bread, cereal, a slice of yellow cheese, artificial sugar and a brown sauce the inmate said was prune stew. Another meal was made up of two slices of white bread, an apple, and an unrecognizable white mixture wrapped in plastic.

The inmates said they were not complaining about the food itself, but about the very small quantities. “It’s only an issue when the deprivation of any necessity becomes a weapon used against us to make us discouraged,” the man sharing the photos said, adding that officials are using the tactic to break prisoners’ resolve. Still, prisoners have refused to return to work.

“The food is a blatant violation and these violations are the reason that we even formed a strike from the start,” that prisoner said. “We r not supposed to be fed the way they r feeding us, it is not 2300 or 2200 calories that we r suppose to be getting that they have been serving us for ten days straight.”

“We r weak feeling nauseated and having headaches from the lack of balanced meals,” he wrote.

Stabbings are frequent, as are suicides.

Alabama’s prisons — the most overcrowded prison system in the country — are operating at nearly 200 percent capacity. In recent years, the state’s department of corrections has been sued over medical neglect, abuse, dangerous conditions, and an extraordinary high level of violence. Stabbings are frequent, as are suicides.

State officials have acknowledged the problems plaguing Alabama’s prisons and recently proposed to shut down 14 prisons, swapping them for four massive, new “state-of-the-art” facilities — an $800 million project they dubbed the “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act.” A scaled-down version of that proposal is currently pending.

Prisoner rights advocates say building more prisons won’t solve the problem. “The crisis with the prisons has to do with culture and management,” Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which represents Alabama prisoners, told The Intercept last month. “It’s not something that can be solved by just building new prisons.”

Prison strikes have been on the rise in recent years, as prisoners organizing through a network of smuggled cell phones have established communication between prisons as well as with the outside. Last month, prisoners in Texas refused to leave their cells to report to their unpaid jobs, listing a series of demands, including “good-time” credit toward sentence reduction, an end to $100 medical co-pays, and a drastic downsizing of the state’s incarcerated population.

A nationwide strike is also planned for September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison riot by a group of prisoners coordinating efforts from Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi. As many as 870,000 prisoners are employed nationwide, some in manufacturing jobs for which they are paid a few cents an hour, if they are paid at all.

“We have made a vow to no longer cater to what we know to be inhumane and barbaric in its essence,” the Holman prisoners wrote, when announcing the strike. “We make this stand now and we will remain here.”

“We just refuse to be the components in the institution of slavery.”

Join The Conversation