From May 1 to May 9, 2016, prisoners at multiple facilities across Alabama engaged in work stoppages, refusing to labor for the Alabama Department of Corrections. This strike was the second major work stoppage in prisons this spring. In April, prisoners in Texas refused to work for most of the month. The striking Alabama prisoners, along with revolutionary prisoners in other states, have also called for a nationally coordinated work stoppage and protest September 9 of this year, the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion.
At the end of the strike, we interviewed Free Alabama Movement (FAM) cofounder Kinetik Justice Amun to get a deeper understanding of the context and strategy of their work stoppage, as well as a better understanding of the state's response and possible strategic lessons going forward. Kinetik has been held in solitary confinement at Holman Correctional since 2014 as retaliation for FAM's work stoppage that January.
Holman Correctional was at the center of this work strike, which spread to Elmore, St Clair, Donaldson and Staton facilities over the following days, shutting down the Alabama Department of Correction (ADOC) canning plant, recycling, fleet services and chemical industries. Holman has also been the site of much spontaneous rebellion in recent months. In March, prisoners repeatedly disrupted the prison's operations, occupying cell blocks, assaulting staff -- including stabbing the warden -- and attempting to burn down the prison. Meanwhile, ADOC has been struggling with budget constraints, overcrowding, and increasing violence for years. Their solution to these problems, a prison transformation bill was recently defeated in the Alabama State Legislature.
Ben Turk: Why did you choose to go on a work strike May 1?
Kinetik: We really were in the preparation stages of organizing for September when we heard news of the money ADOC [was] trying to get for the prisons [it] were trying to build. It became a hot topic in the state after the riot [in March]. In fact, [ADOC] used the riot here as their platform to promote the campaign for this $800 million Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative. They were trying to build four new prisons.
Is that the same law you were telling me about -- where they were taking money from education and after-school programming?
Well, in the last three years, they took $100 million. I think in 2015 they took $100 million from education to try to balance the budget in regards to corrections. They came back last year -- or it might have been early this year -- and got $80 million from education in order to try to keep account of what they were doing. Then the Alabama government proposed a new $800 million bond so they could afford four new mega prisons, one for the females, and three for the males.
These giant prisons, they were to be supermaxes?
Yes. They were supermax. Alabama has a plan to close down 14 male prisons to consolidate them into three male mega-prisons. It would take away our ability to organize because they bring level 3, level 2, level 4 and level 5 prisons together in one prison. I think one of them each holds about 3,500 people.
That way, the maximum security people right now -- the ones in St. Claire, Donaldson and Holman who provide the industry jobs today -- they will all be in these mega-prisons instead, and the lower-level people will be here doing these jobs. The lower-level people won't organize and won't strike because they will be short-timers, people with a year or two before they go home. ADOC will use the short-timers working the industry jobs to generate these billions of dollars, while they keep the rest of the population on controlled movement and secure lockdown at the mega-prisons.
But they didn't get the money. That bill got killed two days after we started the strike. That victory of seeing the bill destroyed and the mega-prisons out of the equation -- that was our first objective: prevent them from getting $800 million to build the mega-prisons without changing the laws and things that contribute to this overcrowding.
See, they want to address the issue with overcrowding of almost 10,000 extra people by building these new mega-prisons. Yeah, a lot of these prisons are old, unsanitary and overcrowded, but rather than rebuild them, you need to put the money into actually releasing the thousands of people who are eligible. ADOC said [it] didn't have the money for parole officers and probation officers to release these people, or the money that should be used for education and rehabilitation to combat recidivism, so why are they trying to build prisons?
Until you change the laws that have people coming here and being in here for 50 and 100 years with these crazy sentences for being here that long, then no, we ain't going to never be alright. We ain't gonna be alright until we burn it down.
Since we killed that bill so they didn't get the money, they are now on the verge of a federal intervention. If we can come together, all of these prisons, we can get our demands in front of the federal court. ADOC has had five years to do something or the federal system will take over, but they ain't doing nothing. It keeps getting worse and worse every year. More and more overcrowded, more and more violent, more and more outbreaks of infectious diseases, more and more lawsuits for inadequate medical treatment -- like I said, it continues to get worse in every arena every year.
So, they are on the brink of the federal courts coming in and that's what they are afraid of the most. They don't want to turn in their books so the federal courts can see exactly what they have been doing, because they've been stealing the money for years. The money they have been getting -- they have only been putting a fraction of it back into the prison system -- they've been pocketing the rest.
The $800 million they were trying to get, trying to use this national attention on Holman prison after the riots to promote that. So we used the national attention to strain their economics and say, "No, y'all need to change these laws instead of building a new prison." And we won, that bill died on the floor. They still have the opportunity to call a special session this year to try to do it again. So we need to be vigilant in regards to the legislation and what's going on and continue to organize and push.
How has ADOC responded to your strike?
They really are bird-feeding us. When I say bird-feeding, I mean, this morning we had grits and prunes for breakfast. That was it. No bread, no nothing. This is the way they've been feeding us for almost 9-10 days. It's been hot dogs and bologna, hot dogs and bologna every single day. So they don't have to do no work in cooking. They just throw whatever on the tray and they sit around and wait to go home, because there's no movement in the prison.
The Department of Corrections has also brought in work-release inmates to undermine our work strike. They sent them to Elmore first, on Thursday afternoon. Then ADOC gave them a few perks over the Friday-Saturday-Sunday period, and yesterday they went back to work at Elmore, seeing that the work release people were doing their job already. You know, Elmore was not as prepared, was not as in-the-loop. They were really in a solidarity role and based on their own issues they had in the institution there.
Then Monday, later on in the afternoon here, at Holman, they brought 12 people from the work-release (Atmore work center) not too far from this prison to work and produce the tags (license plates). That was our leverage. That was our power to negotiate with, the economics of that.
Them bringing people in from the work-release caused a big turmoil amongst everyone. This morning, several people attempted to go back to work. However, many of them came back. I think, in all, maybe 10 people went to the industry today.
However, right now I am waiting for a chance to try to explain to these work-release brothers what they're actually doing. Understand that there's an option that, you know, they at the work center and it's not their assigned jobs so it is optional. They can choose to work or choose not to work. And I'm trying to express to them that they can't do anything to you for refusing to go to another institution for a work assignment that isn't yours. Especially in a prison where you know that we engaged in a work strike.
You know, that's the callousness of the Department of Corrections; they put economics ahead of the welfare of these people's lives. Because these people -- they can easily be right back here and people would be like, "What part of the game are you playing? Why would you do that?" You know what this is about. It's been on the news for a week, so you know what's going on. I understand that you are trying to go home, but this won't stop you from going home. This is not your job assignment. They can't penalize you for not coming over here to work and breaking the strike line.
I wonder if they're threatening them?
I don't think they are threatening them. What it is, they are adding on incentives for coming over here. But now that threat is a possibility because none of the work release wants to get a disciplinary because that disciplinary can be what comes between them getting to go home. So you always have that possibility over their heads.
I think they came over yesterday and packed up the tags they had made because the trucks came through, and they picked up several boxes of the tags and took them with them. I'm trying to get in touch with them if I can get confirmation from them that they won't come back over here and work. Let them know it's a choice.
If someone performs the job, the DOC will be getting what they want. Even though we locked down and going through bird-feeding and other hardships, our objectives aren't being met because they are still getting the money generated from the tags by bringing in outside work.
That was something we didn't anticipate. Well, we anticipated that they could bring in free world workers, pay them minimum wage, all that, but they can't afford to do that. We didn't take into consideration that they would be able to get some of our own brothers from other prisons to do the work.
The question I have about that is, it seems to me that it is still an economic hardship on the ADOC because the work-release people normally would go out into the world and work and make good money?
And the DOC gets 60 percent of that, right. However, the thing is, all of these work-release people are up for a limited amount of outside jobs. There are always people who don't have outside jobs, who work in the work center, or are just there waiting at the work center for a job assignment. I believe those are the guys they are using. I can't see people who are already getting minimum wage pay coming over here to do work for nothing.
That's the problem; there are a handful of people at the work center who just have an institution job or who ain't got a job yet.
Do you think it is useful to call in and demand they not bring in work-release scabs like this?
I think the better thing in that regard would be to identify who they are that are coming in and find a way to stop them.
When you call in to ADOC administration, first of all, they probably aren't going to talk to you. Second of all, they are probably some of the most arrogant people you're ever going to run across. I mean, if you don't really have what you're going to talk about on point -- they are going to hang up on you, they'll talk crazy -- they don't have no respect.
I wonder if that can be useful, if we get regular people to call in and they see how disrespectful and rude the guards are, you know?
Might not work like that man. I mean, I've had so many people call me and tell me they were recording the way that these people are dealing with them. It's a smudge on their collar, but they don't care about being exposed.
I'm watching now ... the truck is riding out of here with two bundles of tags, some 200,000 tags -- countless amounts of money. That's what we're trying to do. Industry workers are the only people in the prison who actually get paid to work -- if you call the 15 to 25 cents per hour being paid -- but I tell them all the time, "You produce 20,000 tags a day. That's 100,000 tags a week and these people can take four of those tags and pay for all of y'all money."
That's supposed to infuriate you! You're supposed to be madder than anyone in the world that you produce 100,000 tags and the $50 you earn in a month can be made with half of a tag. It's crazy.
But then, I understand that when you've been down 30-35 years and you don't have outside support, you'll take anything you can get. That's why we want to bring a lawyer in.
I wanted to ask about lawyers, I heard you were looking for a labor lawyer to come in ...
What we wanted to do was to bring a lawyer in here to give a recommendation to the industry workers from the outside support system, to show there are people working to solidify their position as workers, not just as prisoners. We want to try to get prisoner workers some sort of security back. If we get lawyers to come together and join the movement, ADOC won't have the ability to tell prisoners, "You won't have that income no more ever again because you tried to stand up for your rights."
Or maybe find out if there is a legal blockade we can use to prevent them from bringing level 2 work-release workers into the maximum security prison to work a factory job. To give us some sort of foundation for us to stand on.
If we can't get a labor lawyer, maybe a civil rights lawyer. I reached out to some friends and they said the lawyers are going to want to know exactly what it is that they are coming in there to do, so the better you can describe that, the more likely we will be to find somebody.
Ok, we're trying to find someone to set up a conference to explain to them what we need done. What we are trying to get done and to see if they would be able to do that. We're just trying to cover some bases, you know, to get at that security incentive to get at people to keep them on board for the long haul.
For that long haul, for September, what are your next steps and what can people on the outside do?
We need people to start organizing events in their city to show solidarity, not just social media posts declaring the words. We need tangible support and solidarity. Let's stop talking about it and be about it.
September is right around the corner, so start planning and promoting educational workshops, marches, protests and walk-outs. Boycott complicit corporations and pressure your school, your workplace, or any institution you interact with to divest from prison slavery. It's time to let our actions show our dissatisfaction.
On June 25, we'll be having an Incarcerated Lives Matter event in Birmingham. Juneteenth, July 4 or Bastille Day (July 14) celebrations are good opportunities to march, flyer or create a visible protest presence. August 12 is also the day Hugo Pinell was murdered on the yard in San Quentin last year, and people are planning memorials on that day.
As far as this fight here goes, every engagement we've had with these people. We be bobbin, and they be bobbin. This is the first time they've used the tactic of going to the work-release to use against those who work in the industry. They kind of took us by surprise with that, but we still trying to keep the unity and make sure that whatever we do, we do it as a collective unit. We maintain our ground because there's a lot of progress we've made on the outside as well as on the inside.
The next conference we have, we need to share some of the things that have happened during this ordeal that we need to share with a larger audience to be prepared for the September endeavor. We'll know the ins and outs of the things that they are capable of. The things that they try so the outside people can be prepared for the things that can be anticipated.
There was a lot of things that didn't go the way we intended, but we still gained the experience and we still gained the ground of getting the bill killed, and at least getting a week of economical strain on them to put them deeper into the financial hole while they try to deal with this prison crisis.
We definitely are shooting for getting to the point where we ain't never going back to work. We ain't never letting up. Each time that we get a little more organized, we are getting to the point where we can sit down and make it do what it do.
I know there are people organizing in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Oregon. But in a lot of those places, the call to end prison slavery and other labor issues do not resonate as much as in the South. I'm not sure why that is, but...
What we need in those different states -- we need to determine the language and the issues so that we can try to find a common ground. I know the language of the South is not as popular in the North as it is in Texas, Alabama and Georgia. We need to start coming together on conference calls and see how many contacts we have that we can depend on to be ready.
If we can do that -- get that kind of solidarity and unity on the inside and the proper promotion and publicity on the outside -- that would make a great contribution to the collective cause.
Kinetik Justice Amun (Robert Earl Council) is a New Afrikaans political prisoner of war. For the last 17 years, he has played a major role in educating prisoners and confronting corrupt prison authorities. He is a cofounder of the Free Alabama Movement, a nonviolent and peaceful protest for the human and civil rights of all Alabama prisoners, as well as a curriculum developer for the Universal Peace and Unity (UPU) movement. Amun has been serving an indefinite sentence in solitary confinement for the last 28 months in retaliation for the 2014 Free Alabama Movement shut-down. Twenty-two years ago, he was wrongfully convicted a capital murder sentence (life without parole) by an all-white jury for the self-defense killing of a white man. To learn more about this legal lynching, visit The Resurrection of Robert Earl Council on Facebook.
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