ICYMI: Justice Department to Investigate Conditions in Alabama Prisons

By Kenrya Rankin Oct 11, 2016

Nearly a month after inmates in Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility helped coordinate a nationwide labor strike to protest the conditions inside the state’s facilities, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has answered the call to investigate each of the state’s prisons for men.

From a statement issued by the DOJ on October 7:

The investigation will focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from physical harm and sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners; whether prisoners are adequately protected from use of excessive force and staff sexual abuse by correctional officers; and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.

The strike—which Democracy Now! reports kicked off in at least 24 states—began on September 9, as a nod to the 25th anniversary of the shut down of the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Per the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC): “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.”

Inmates are forced to work for little or no money, doing jobs that keep the facilities running, such as food preparation, cleaning and landscaping. And as Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright told Mother Jones, “Typically prisoners are required to work, and if they refuse to work, they can be punished by having their sentences lengthened and being placed in solitary confinement.”

Strike organizers are eschewing this practice—which is highlighted in Ava DuVernay’s new movie, “13th”—via a work stoppage. The Free Alabama Movement, which helped coordinate the strike both locally and nationwide, previously issued a set of demands aimed at addressing what it calls inhumane conditions in the state’s facilities. It calls for several actions, including a reduction in the state’s overstuffed prison population, the creation of a “Education, Rehabilitation and Re-Entry Preparedness” program, the release of mentally ill inmates to appropriate care (especially relevant in light of the recent suicide of inmate Robert Deangelo Carter), restoration of voting rights and the implementation of minimum wage for people who opt to work while in prison. Last month, some corrections officers at Holman refused to report to work in what strike organizers hailed as a show of solidarity.

While the DOJ did not specifically mention the strike as the impetus for its investigation, Pastor Kenneth Glasgow of the Free Alabama Movement told Buzzfeed that the organization counts the announcement as a victory for the inmates. “I do believe the prison strike that was initiated led and organized by those on the inside of Holman prison is the reason for the DOJ launching the investigation,” he said. “And I think when they saw that even the officers admitted that the administration was allowing a hostile environment to be created, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The agency has not provided a timeline for the investigation, which will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.