What You Need to Know About the Alabama Prison Strike

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Oct 27, 2022

On September 26, thousands of people held in Alabama state prisons went on strike. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been under federal investigation since 2016, and conditions inside the state prisons are among the deadliest in the nation. Strikers say the horrific conditions include overcrowding, neglect, abuse, and a drug epidemic—but perhaps the biggest reason for the strike is the sense of desperation a broken parole system creates.

“Those incarcerated only see one way out of prison: in a body bag,” said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), which has been working closely with incarcerated people to support the strike.

The strike went on hiatus last week because strikers said they wanted to provide ADOC and officials an opportunity to meet their demands. They also cited concern for incarcerated strikers enduring ADOC retaliation. Glasgow and the incarcerated organizers intend to scale the strike back up if the state does not meet their demands by the end of the month.

What are conditions like inside Alabama prisons?

“We are in a humanitarian crisis,” Kinetik Justice, one of the incarcerated strikers, told Vera. “I can’t even begin to tell you half the things the administration is doing around here to cover up the fact that they cannot run the prison.”

The number of drug-related deaths in ADOC custody has skyrocketed. Justice said the state’s inaction around the overdose crisis sends a loud and clear message: “Our lives don’t mean anything. Our lives don’t have any value. So, nobody cares that 100 people have overdosed.”

Alabama incarcerates people at a higher rate than almost any other state in the country—39 percent higher than the national rate. This leads to severe overcrowding and understaffing and, ultimately, to neglect. Alabama prisons have a mortality rate more than twice the national average, and people held in ADOC custody have had among the highest COVID-19 death rate across all state prisons.

The crisis has provoked multiple U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations. A month before the strike began, DOJ reported that Limestone Correctional Facility, where Justice is held, exposes people to “deadly harm.” A scathing 2019 DOJ report concluded that there was “reasonable cause” to believe ADOC facilities are operating unconstitutionally. This, and a 2020 lawsuit that describes the state as being “deliberately indifferent” to its violations, have yet to translate into compelling changes within ADOC facilities. Glasgow and other organizers are frustrated by the lack of movement.

“We need DOJ to act upon what they said,” Glasgow said. “They’re the ones saying ADOC is treating people inhumanely. They’re the ones who said they’re violating the Eighth and 14th Amendments. They’re the ones saying [ADOC] is inadequate. So do something about it! Bodies are piling up.”

How has the state’s parole system compounded the crisis?

If deadly prison conditions were the kindling for the strike, changes to the state’s parole system served as a match.

"People are doing everything that they are supposed to do, getting all the certificates, going through all the programs, having no disciplinaries, and still not getting parole. So that’s what really ignited it,” Glasgow said.

Alabama’s parole board is made up of three people who are appointed by the governor. The board currently includes one former prosecutor, one former probation officer, and one former state trooper. There is no representation from anyone with a criminal defense background.

Since 2019, when former prosecutor Leigh Gwathney became board chair, the number of people granted parole in Alabama has fallen 83 percent. In 2018, 3,732 people were granted parole. But that number plummeted to 648 in 2021. Between 2016 and 2018, parole was regularly granted in roughly half of hearings. So far, in 2022, just 11 percent of people before the board have received parole. The parole board decisions show racial disparities, with Black people receiving parole just 7 percent of the time, compared to 16 percent for white people.

Although the board sets parole guidelines—including taking classes, not getting into fights, and generally following ADOC rules—that are meant to be the bases for its decisions, the board followed its own guidelines in just 39 percent of cases in fiscal year 2021.

As a result of parole denials, state prisons have grown even more crowded in recent years, and the people held within them even more desperate.

What other factors are contributing to the strike?

Both Glasgow and Justice cited the construction of new prisons as a major concern for the strikers. Alabama received $2.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds—money intended to support vital infrastructure in a state that had the country’s fourth-highest COVID-19 fatality rate. But Alabama is spending $400 million of that money—which could have gone towards health care or other needed services—alongside an additional $900 million, on the construction of at least two new “megaprisons.”

Strikers are concerned that the construction of new prisons, alongside the systemic denial of parole, signals a commitment to drastically increase mass incarceration for generations to come. “That’s how you’re going to deal with overcrowding? By adding more beds?” Glasgow asked. “That makes me and my family targets to keep your capacity levels up. We become a commodity again.”

How does prison labor factor into this?

The strike is predicated on the premise that ADOC depends on prison labor to function. “The courts are shut down to us. The parole board is shut down to us. So, our only option is understanding that this is their language: money,” Justice said.

In 2012, Alabama legalized the use of prison labor for private, for-profit companies. Incarcerated people carry out day-to-day operations inside prisons and work in manufacturing plants that produce goods the state then sells. Workers are paid well below minimum wage for their labor. This remains legal for two million incarcerated people nationwide thanks to an exception in the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery except as punishment for a crime.

What are the strikers’ demands?

The strikers have multiple demands, including:

  • Eliminating life-without-parole sentences.
  • Repealing Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, which mandates longer sentences for those with prior convictions.
  • Establishing parole criteria that mandate release if met.
  • Reducing the 30-year minimum for juveniles to no more than 15 before parole eligibility.
  • Creating a review board overseeing the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Governor Kay Ivey called the demands “unreasonable.”

Clinique Chapman, Associate Director of Vera’s Restoring Promise initiative, said the demands from the strikers represent an important shift in the conversation around reform, which too often excludes incarcerated people. “No longer is the attention solely on what we as advocates want for our community members behind bars. The strike demands we include the people most impacted by the prison system,” Chapman said. “The demands are not unreasonable. They are simply asking for standards of confinement that center dignity and a justice system that considers all of their humanity.”

What kind of retaliation have the strikers endured?

ADOC has allegedly begun “bird feeding” striking workers—in other words, cutting their rations in order to starve the strikers. Pictures have circulated online of the two cold meals that people have been forced to survive on each day. ADOC implemented this “holiday meal schedule,” serving only breakfast and dinner as the strike began.

Alabama is also allegedly using the threat of incarceration to break the strike. Labor Notes reports that people on work release—able to work outside the prison and return when their shifts are complete—who refuse to cross the picket line risk losing their release status and being transferred to the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a prison notorious for its violence.

Moreover, Justice says that striking workers are being crowded into mental health cells or segregation units (also known as solitary confinement—deemed torture by the UN) as retaliation for their participation. He says that ADOC is further limiting communication access for people involved in the strike.

What comes next?

It’s hard to say. As of right now, the strike is temporarily on hold. Some participants may continue escalation, but the organized effort may not resume until next month, if at all. Glasgow and Justice say that depends on whether state and prison officials meet the strikers’ demands. But as the strike went on hiatus last week, Justice was optimistic.

“We’re more enthusiastic than we ever have been here,” he said. “We are prepared to go on strike back-to-back, over and over again, every day, every month. We’re no longer going to sit here and accept being treated as less than human beings. We’re not going to do it anymore. That’s the collective consensus.”