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Vigil For Alabama Prisoners Striking Against the "Slave Empire"

Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 3:00pm to 7:00pm
Kelly Ingram Park
Birmingham, AL 35203
United States

F.A.M., the Free Alabama Movement, has called upon all who care about the human beings at the mercy of the prison industrial complex to come out to Alabama for a vigil this weekend: "Join a non-violent protest for civil and human rights for the men and women in Alabama's prisons. We are protesting the mass incarceration and targeting of black youth, sentencing and parole reform, free labor, and long-term incarceration without affording any opportunities for education, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs." To learn more about Alabama's prisoners, watch here.

Inmates strike in Alabama, declare prison is “running a slave empire”

Inmates at an Alabama prison planned to stage a work stoppage and hope to spur an escalating strike wave, a leader of the effort told Salon in a phone call from his jail cell.

“We decided that the only weapon or strategy … that we have is our labor, because that’s the only reason that we’re here,” said Melvin Ray, an inmate at the St. Clair correctional facility and founder of the prison-based group Free Alabama Movement. “They’re incarcerating people for the free labor.” Spokespeople for Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and his Department of Corrections did not respond to midday inquiries Thursday. Jobs done by inmates include kitchen and laundry work, chemical and license plate production, and furniture-making. In 2011, Alabama’s Department of Agriculture reportedly discussed using inmates to replace immigrants for agricultural work; in 2012, the state Senate passed a bill to let private businesses employ prison labor.

Inmates at St. Clair and two other prisons, Holman and Elmore, previously refused to work for several days in January. A Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Associated Press at the time that those protests were peaceful, and told that some of the inmates’ demands were outside the authority of the department to address. The state told the AP that a handful of inmates refused work, and others were prevented from working by safety or weather issues. In contrast, Ray told Salon the January effort drew the participation of all of St. Clair’s roughly 1,300 inmates and nearly all of Holman’s roughly 1,100. He predicted this weekend’s work stoppage would spread further and grow larger than that one, but also accused prison officials of hampering F.A.M.’s organizing by wielding threats and sending him and other leaders to solitary confinement. “It’s a hellhole,” he told Salon. “That’s what they created these things for: to destroy men.”

To grow the movement, said Ray, “We have to get them to understand: You’re not giving up anything. You don’t have anything. And you’re going to gain your freedom right here.”

Along with organizing work stoppages, F.A.M. has posted clandestinely shot cellphone videos from inmates describing and documenting alleged abuses, including unsafe beef, broken fire exits and exposed wires. The DOC told that the inmates who used the cellphones, which are banned in Alabama state prisons, could be punished. (Asked about the cellphone on which he was speaking with Salon, Ray said that while he was currently in solitary confinement, F.A.M. members were “going to make sure that I have the resources I need … to accomplish the job,” and declined to elaborate.)

Ray said the strikers are out to secure educational programming and true rehabilitation, and to end overcrowding, life sentences without parole, and “the free labor system.” “There is not even the pretense of doing anything about ‘corrections,’” he argued. Rather, “they’re running a slave empire.”

Conditions in Alabama’s prisons are currently being investigated by the federal Justice Department, and Gov. Bentley last week announced that the state would draw on help from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Pew Charitable Trusts, and Council of State Governments in making improvements to the system. But Ray dismissed the prospect that politicians on their own would effect meaningful reforms. “No one is going to do anything,” he said, “so we have to do it ourselves.”

The F.A.M. leader emphasized that the effort would remain nonviolent. “You have rapists, you have all the broad spectrum of criminal conduct,” he said, “and so we can’t incorporate violence, because you know, we’re already behind the eight ball as far as, you know, our image.” Beyond the image issue, he added, “Violence is what has drawn most of us into the prisons — and that’s what we’re trying to stop.”

Ray said it was too soon to tell how long this weekend’s work stopppage would last, or how many other facilities would join in the ensuing days. “If a prison goes down for [only] a week, we may not capture another prison,” he told Salon. “If a prison goes down for two weeks, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll capture another prison. If a prisoner strike goes down for three weeks…there’s no telling how many prisons might get in.” Supporters including the Industrial Workers of the World union plan to hold a vigil in support of the strikers.

“There may be some prisons we spent a lot of time organizing that don’t even go on strike,” Ray acknowledged. But “the best-case scenario would be that every prison in the state of Alabama joins the Alabama movement – go on, shut down.”

The above is based on an article first published on Salon. Read on for an excerpt of Melvin Ray's book on F.A.M.:

Freedom. . . Make no mistake about it

That's the business of Free Alabama Movement. At some point, we (prisoners) have got to get to the point where not only have we had enough of the inhumane and unconstitutional living conditons that we are confined in, but we also have got to get to the point where we are ready, willing, and able to do something about it. This "something" is a statewide shutdown on Free Labor in the form of a Non-Violent and Peaceful Protest for Civil and Human Rights.

Some of us may want to continue to employ strategies of the past that simply are outdated and, quite frankly, have never worked to free deserving prisoners and provide meaningful and long-term reform to our conditions of confinement. The fact of the matter is that we have to use the technology that is available to us, as well as adjusting our strategies to the world we live in today (2013/2014), to improve our conditions. This will include using cellphones, video cameras and the Internet to aid our Movement. This will be done by prisoners taking pictures and filming video images of the abuses and civil and human rights violations we see in prison.

Free Alabama Movement knows that non-violence is not only our best strategy, but it is our only strategy capable of producing our desired goals. Why? Because we can't expect to show that we are ready to return to society if we can't prove that we are capable of resolving our issues and conducting ourselves as men without resorting to violence.

This Movement isn't about getting "some outside support “, or having our family "call the politicians or mayor's office," "call the news station" and on and on and on. The reason for this is simple: we can't form a Movement conditioned on "outside" people without first unifying the "inside people". Thus is so because these "outside" people already know what's going on inside of their prisons and simply don't give a f***. If you don't think they already know, then all you have to do is read the three-part series published by the Montgomery Advertiser, called Prisons in Peril September 8, 15, and 22.

...all branches of Alabama’s government and media already know, for example, that Alabama's prison system is designed to hold 16,000, yet they are currently holding over 32,000, which is twice its design capacity.....

Additionally, as prisoners at West Jefferson, St. Clair, and Holman, we already know that the water supply at these Prisons is unsafe, and we know that cadets are told on their first day on the job to NEVER drink the water at these prisons. And, we prisoners and these "outside" people already know that we provide millions of dollars in FREE LABOR every year to the State, by working runner jobs, farm squads, maintenance, fixing their chairs, cars and furniture, and working industries and laundry. And yet, these outside people are doing nothing to address these problems.

......if you want to know why over 1,000,000 black people are in prison, read The New Jim Crow. And, if you want to learn what it's going to take for us to overcome our situation, then please, please, please read The New Jim Crow.

Two things that really stood out to me and resonated with my thinking when reading this book was the following:

"A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine that far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration and build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflecting compassionate rather than punitive impulses toward poor people of color fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King's dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and out of American Society."

In a nutshell, Ms. Alexander is explaining that there won't be any real changes to the system simply by calling on outside support without a mass movement. These problems are our own, and no one outside of us (FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT) can solve them without a mass movement. And that's the bottom line!!!!

Ms. Alexander also speaks about the changing of laws . . . and how that ain't gonna happen either, because of private enterprise and how corporate America profits off of prisoners. On page 218 in her book, she quotes from a filing by an executive of the private prison conglomerate Corrections Corporation of American. Here is what the exec had to say about why they don't need any laws to change that will help release prisoners or reduce prisons populations:

"Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privitization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently prescribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentences, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

Notice that the executive said "house” not rehabilitate. That also should explain why all new laws are loaded with judicial discretion, from Kirby, to juveniles under 18, habitual offenders, capital sentences, and on and on. These vampires need bodies, and they are not going to let their honey-hole go, which is the arbitrary laws that allows for them to incarcerate large numbers of prisoners at any given time.

Ms. Alexander also pointed out that very rich and powerful people like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Bob Barker (check your mattress and pillows) have large investments in private prisons. Finally, Ms. Alexander makes the point that all Alabama prisoners are all too familiar with:

"Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense, though, only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control -- specifically, racial control -- then the system is a fantastic success. In less than two decades, the prison population quadrupled, and large majorities of poor people of color in urban areas throughout the United States were placed under the control of the criminal justice system or saddled with criminal records for life. Almost overnight, huge segments of ghetto communities were permanently relegated to second-class status, disenfranchised, and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies. "

....this system of warehousing poor people is very lucrative and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

And, it will continue to exist for as long as they can exploit our families, our Free Labor, and us. Young black men will continue to be rounded up and ran through the courts; and we will continue to be sentenced to 20 split 5, life, and life without  parole, and on and on. And, we will continue to see people with revoked probation and parole who are taken off of the street at all times of the day and night, falsely arrested and sent back to then serve a 20 year sentences, day for day --- even if they are ultimately found not guilty on the charge that they were returned to prison for (see our interview with Poncho), if the case is dismissed, or even if they were returned for a technical violation (see our interview with Kelly "KB" Brooks. )

Probation, parole and community corrections remain the traps that allows the State and private prisons to regain control of our body and mind for any reason they see fit, and that reason is usually dollars and cents.

In the September 22 article published by the Montgomery Advertiser, it states that there are appx. 67,389 people on parole or probation in Alabama (which has among the most over-crowded prisons in the nation). Add 32,000 more from prison in the ADOC (Alabama Department of Corrections) to that number, and you have almost 100,000 potential laborers on-deck for prison FREE LABOR. That's why laws were recently passed in Alabama to allow private companies to build factories at prisons. They have a labor pool of 100,000 that they can force to work for free at any given time.

In spite of all of this, though, we prisoners still retain the POWER to tear this playhouse down at any time.

All we have to do is shut down and this cruel system of inhumanity and exploitation comes to an end.

Everything about ADOC and justice in Alabama can be understood if we just educate ourselves about economics, economic systems, and the Free Labor economic system -- better known as slavery.

See, FREE LABOR allows for the master to produce large quantities of products at a cheaper price than his competitor because labor is the greatest expense to a business. The ADOC, the courts, D.A.'s and private prisons all understand this. The more free or cheap labor they can get, the more money they save and can use to keep more people in prison. And as long as we are in prison, the worse our living conditions and deprivations will be.

BUT, the ADOC and their trap buddies now have a problem: FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT.

As we explain in this book, Prisoners have the ability to change this system by simply removing our free labor from the equation and shutting down. Let me give some raw numbers and an example of why we have the power to make change.

Okay, currently there are appx 32,000 prisoners in the ADOC, with about 1/3 of them working everyday for FREE. That's about 10,000 people working on farm squads, kitchens, road squads, runners, maintenance, dorm cleaners, and all of the other workers, while the ADOC is selling chemicals, bleach, meat, recycling paper and plastic, selling tags, fixing furniture and cars, getting grass cut, getting food cooked and served, dorms cleaned, libraries ran, and on and on and on . Well, let’s add this up and see what we should be making at just minimum wage of $7.50 per hour.

10,000 workers × $7.50 per hour, equals $75,000 every hour that we should be getting paid. And when you multiply $75,000 × 8 hours of work each day, you get guaranteed $600,000 per day.

Yes, that's correct. We are giving the ADOC $600,000 worth of free labor every day, $6 million worth of free labor every 10 days, and $219,000,000 worth of free labor every year, but receiving nothing in return.

And we are doing all of this slave labor while living in hell holes, eating garbage, bring treated like less than dogs, having our families basically strip to visit us, and paying for everything from armbands to id cards to healthcare, and exploited at the store, snack line, and incentive packages. We are also serving all of our sentences, with no hope for parole.

Hell, why can't we get conjugal visits when they are keeping us for 30 years, working us for free, and taking everything we get? Conjugal visits are another issue of humanity and necessary part of rehabilitation that will be pressed by FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT. In all of nature, no other animal, not even zoo animals, are deprived of this natural process, except prisoners. But the explanations being offered for this denial are as outdated and antiquated as the system that supports them. In the annals of history, only the lives of slaves were controlled in such a way. As if the black family isn't already fractured enough, this arbitrary deprivation only continues the erosion of the family structure. Add to that the economic hardship of Free Labor, and the masses of poor families affected by incarceration will continue to crumble.

The economy in the black and poor communities would change overnight for the better if they paid prisoners......

What we want:

1. We want an end to the system of free labor within the Alabama Department of Corrections

Free Alabama Movement uses the term Free Labor because, while we prisoners can't deny the fact that we provide Free Labor, most of us don't want to accept the fact that free labor is the backbone of Slavery. So, you know what that would make us, right? Slaves!....

2. We want to end to the inhumane living conditions under which Alabama prisoners suffer, including overcrowding and the warehousing of large amounts of people for no purpose other than to extract free labor.

Extreme overcrowding at the levels seen only is Alabama, where the prison system is currently operating at 200% capacity, produces the types of living conditions that only make incarceration more dangerous, contributes to violence, spreading of diseases, and overall unhealthy living environment. The truest sign of the devaluation of prisoners' lives is in the water supply. The ADOC forces us to drink, bathe and wash clothes from a water supply that stinks, tastes bad, and leaves us itching and sometimes scratching after a shower.....

3. We want control of our resources and the money our families send to us.

If our families only knew that the State was charging them the costs of being locked up as if they were prisoners too . . . When our families send us money, the courts snatch their cut out off the rip....

4. Reform in youthful offender law.

Capital punishment and new science makes it paramount that Youthful Offender laws be modified. Any child under 22 who commits a crime must automatically be prosecuted as a Youthful Offender, and should never be subject to a sentence of LWOP. 22 is the age when a child who entered college at 18 would be looking to graduate with a Bachelor's Degree. At this point, the first real stage of development and entry into the real world should be beginning. So why should a child who makes a mistake at 14 (Evans Miller), 15 (Kelly Brooks), or 16 be held accountable for that mistake for the rest of their life. How can life end for a mistake made by a child before it ever begins, with no opportunity or hope for rehabilitation?

5. Repeal of the Habitual Offender Act and other laws.

Repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, TRUTH IN SENTENCING and elimination of the sentence of Life Without Parole. If Alabama is serious about rehabilitation, then only those who show themselves to be incorrigible and incapable of rehabilitation SHOULD BE LEFT BEHIND IN PRISON. But right now, that's not the case. As it stands right now, anyone, whether rehabilitated or not, can find themselves stuck in prison waiting only for death to arrive in, 20, 30, 40 or more years. With no right to education, and no hope for release, and treatment incompatible with human decency, it's no wonder prisons breed crime, hopelessness, and despair.

The above is an excerpt of Melvin Ray's book on the Free Alabama Movement (F.A.M.)


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