Thousands of Alabama inmate workers began a labor strike this week to protest poor prison conditions across the state, where facilities are overcrowded, understaffed and notoriously dangerous.
The protest, which also calls for broader criminal justice reforms, began on Monday. Diyawn Caldwell, the president of Both Sides of the Wall, an advocacy group, said the organization is coordinating the strike with inmates across the state and predicted that about 80 percent of the roughly 25,000 people in prison would participate in the strike, forgoing their usual jobs as cooks and cleaners.
The strike, an uncommon occurrence in prisons, is intended to draw attention to the overcrowding crisis in Alabama prisons that has long shadowed governors and correctional officials. It also threatens to disrupt the prison system as officials take on the work that inmates usually do.
Ms. Caldwell’s husband, Cordarius Caldwell, 34, who is incarcerated at Ventress Correctional Facility on a murder offense, said by phone on Tuesday that inmates had received two sack lunches on Monday and Tuesday, rather than the normal three meals.
The Alabama corrections system has drawn the ire of the Justice Department, which released a report in 2019 that outlined “severe, systemic” conditions across the state’s prisons that violated constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment because they were in danger of being raped or murdered.
The report found that major prisons were at 182 percent of capacity, and that prisoners in the Alabama system endured some of the highest rates of homicide and rape in the country.
The Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Tuesday. The department told The Montgomery Advertiser that officers had deployed “security measures” since the start of the strike, but it did not share more details.
John Hamm, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, told The Advertiser that “all facilities are operational and there have been no disruption of critical services.”
Willie Williams, an inmate at the Staton Correctional Center in Elmore County, Ala., said by phone on Tuesday night that he and dozens of other inmates were tired of the “inhumane” conditions at the prison, which he described as a “filthy place” that was covered by mold and overcrowded.
Inmates and activists had been planning the strike since late June, he said, because of a blunt realization: “There is nothing good that comes from” the state corrections department. “There’s no rehabilitation. There’s no compassion.” (Mr. Williams is serving a life sentence for a rape offense, which he said he did not commit.)
Ms. Caldwell said the strike would continue until officials met their demands, including improved living conditions and creating a more transparent and streamlined parole process. The prisoners are calling for creating a review board to oversee the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and repealing the Habitual Felony Offenders Act, a law that results in longer prison sentences.
“Alabama fails over and over and over again to address the crisis that’s going on,” Ms. Caldwell said by phone on Tuesday night.
Advocates from Alabama Prison Advocacy and Incarcerated Families United and other groups had been scheduling Zoom calls with inmates since late June, asking them to persuade other incarcerated people to participate in the strike, Ms. Caldwell said. The calls were mostly with inmates who had influence among prisoners.
“We set a date and, you know, got the message out and got it clear that, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do; if you guys want freedom, you know, you have to walk in unison,’” she added.
The strike comes a week after photos of an emaciated inmate, Kastellio Vaughan, captured the attention of thousands online. His sister posted the photos on Facebook, writing, “Get Help.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections said in a statement on Tuesday that Mr. Vaughan had surgery for an obstructed bowel in August, after a gunshot injury. In September, he was again hospitalized because of complications. The department said he opted to be discharged both times against medical advice and has refused medical treatment or attention since Sept. 7.
Lee Merritt, a lawyer who is representing Mr. Vaughan and his relatives, said in a statement on Tuesday that the family was trying to get him transferred to a hospital outside of prison. Mr. Vaughan’s sister, Kassie, wrote on Facebook that if he did refuse medical help, it was because he was in a “delirious state.”
Though Mr. Vaughan’s case did not ignite the strike this week, Ms. Caldwell said, it did attract support from hundreds of Alabamians who protested outside the department’s headquarters in Montgomery on Monday.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Tuesday.
Ms. Ivey and her fellow Republican lawmakers approved a plan last year to build two new prisons to relieve overcrowding. But opponents of her plan, including Ms. Caldwell, say that building more prisons will not address the need for criminal justice reforms like those happening in other states and at the federal level.
“Alabama can’t build themselves out of the crisis that’s going on in the prison system,” Ms. Caldwell said. She added: “We are not saying that we’re trying to let every murderer or rapist or even serial killer out of prison. We’re asking to give these people a fighting chance.”
Mr. Caldwell said that it had been easy to persuade inmates to participate in the strike because of the poor conditions in the prison: Moldy bathrooms, congested spaces and a dangerous lack of security.
“We’re doing this for us,” he said. “I’m doing this for me. I’m doing this for you.”