Guards Sympathize With Striking Prisoners:
“We See It As A Moral Issue”
As a national
prison strike enters its second month, the Department of Justice says it
will investigate conditions in Alabama prisons. And some corrections
officers are expressing support.
Oct. 9, 2016
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
Department of Justice has
opened an investigation into prison conditions in Alabama, weeks
after inmates there joined a nationwide prisoner strike in protest of
forced labor and living conditions.
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 DOJ said in a
department declined to comment on what prompted the statewide probe. But
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a leader of the Free Alabama Movement, an
advocacy group that helped support the strike, credited the actions of
prisoners and corrections officers of Holman Correctional Facility in
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
continued in late September, corrections officers at Holman prison
did not show up to scheduled work shifts and spoke out about dangerous
conditions. And in Michigan, unionized corrections officers have
expressed sympathy for the prisoners’ cause.
“We see it
as a moral issue,” said Andy Potter, chief of staff and executive vice
president of the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), which
represents 10,000 corrections staffers. Hundreds of inmates in Michigan
took part in the national strike with a peaceful prison-yard march in
early September, leading to a purge by prison authorities, who
identified 250 organizers of the strike and relocated them to other
officers basically understand the prisoners’ plight,” Potter told
BuzzFeed News. “They don’t outright support the work-stoppage, they
haven’t taken a position like that, but almost everyone that I’ve talked
to — and I represent them — understand why the inmates would do it.”
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
evening of Sunday, Sept. 24, more than two weeks after the national
strike began, nine corrections officers at Holman did not show up to
work their scheduled shift. Officers from nearby prisons were brought in
to fill the posts, with higher-ranking officers handing out meals and
handling security, according to reports from prisoners in the facility.
following Sunday, six of the nine again did not appear for work,
according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
corrections officers have not officially endorsed the strike or shared
specific grievances with the DOC, it was “not routine” for officers to
fail to come to work in those numbers, ADOC Public Information Officer
Robert Horton told BuzzFeed News.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
At the heart
of the prison strike is the contention that forced labor is a violation
of basic rights. Approximately 900,000 of America’s 2.4 million
prisoners today work for little or no pay, both running their facilities
and producing goods like license plates and furniture for the state and
This is made
possible by a loophole in the US Constitution itself. The 13th
Amendment reads, in full: “Neither slavery nor involuntary
servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have
been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
of being forced to work, as well as documented patterns of overcrowding,
spoiled food, and the abuse of solitary confinement, prisoners across
the country began working on plans for a national prison strike
more than a year ago.
smuggled cell phones, social media, and the help of outside groups
such as the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) and the Incarcerated Workers
Organizing Committee (IWOC), prisoners were able to organize weeks of
action beginning Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison
uprising in upstate New York.
But a broad
view of the national action can be hard to come by. Prisoners have
limited opportunities to communicate with the outside world, and
information on the strike has been sporadic and difficult to obtain.
Some organizers have been placed in solitary confinement.
actions have been reported at facilities in
Alabama, Michigan, Washington state,
California over the past four weeks.
A map of some of the facilities where strike action has occurred since
from Washington state and Michigan in particular illustrate the
potential consequences for prisoners who take part in the strike, and
the difficulty of maintaining momentum when any form of protest is met
with swift retaliation.
Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington, on
Sept. 9, three prisoners did not report to their jobs in the prison
library, in solidarity with the nationwide strike.
were placed in solitary confinement, pending disciplinary hearings,
according to Jeremy Barclay, communications director of the Washington
Department of Corrections. At the hearings, they were found guilty of
not having appeared for work.
were required to spend 20 days in solitary confinement for participating
in the strike, and they lost their job details working the library. As a
result of their actions, the prison library remained closed from Sept. 9
to Oct. 1, Barclay said. According to the WDOC, the women were the only
prisoners in the state to take part in the strike.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, on Sept. 9, 400 prisoners
marched in the yard peacefully in violation of prison rules, according
to Michigan DOC Public Information Officer Chris Goutz.
“After a few
hours, we had our deputy wardens come out and talk to the prisoners and
convince them to go back to their bunks, which they did,” he said. “We
followed. First, a “warden’s forum” was convened, during which some
prisoners spoke with the prison management about their grievances. They
also shared information about which prisoners had helped to organized
the strike, which corrections officers had been tracking independently
as well. Later that afternoon, the prison dispatched an emergency
response team, who went in and “extricated those who were responsible
for leading the protest,” according to Goutz.
time it took to remove all of those who were involved — 150 in 8 housing
units — some of the prisoners who could see this was happening took that
time to break things in their housing units,” he said.
the officers placed all prisoners in the yard, with their wrists
zip-tied for several hours, Goutz said,
confirming an account from IWOC spokesperson Azzurra Crispino.
following days, corrections officers removed the 150 prisoners
identified as strike leaders from Kinross and relocated them to other
facilities in the state. The prisoners were placed in solitary
confinement until they could have a disciplinary hearing, after which,
if found guilty, they will have sanctions placed on them in the form of
lost privileges or increased security, restricting their freedom of
movement, according to Goutz.
march, the prisoners “weren’t attacking each other, attacking staff, or
calling out threats to my knowledge,” Goutz said. “They were just
marching. But in a prison setting, any demonstration like that, where
prisoners are gathering together and acting as one, is a dangerous
situation. So it’s not allowed, and the prisoners know that.”
removal of the initial 150 prisoners who had been involved in the
strike, corrections officers identified roughly another 100 prisoners
involved in the labor action, who were also removed, Goutz said. In
total, 250 prisoners were moved out of the facility. No individual who
could be linked to organizing the strike remains at Kinross.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
One of the
main reasons prisoners participated in the strike in Michigan, according
to the MCO’s Potter, was the low quality and quantity of food in their
facilities, which corrections officers have long protested.
in the media for the past two or three years arguing the food portions
are terrible,” Potter said. “Both the quantity and the quality. It’s not
prisoners and officers, the food is often spoiled and contains maggots.
Also prior to the strike, wages for prisoners’ work were decreased,
while commissary prices for packaged food were increased, Potter said.
This was one of the main contributing reasons for the strike at Kinross.
should be paid a good wage when they work,” said Potter. “They should be
allowed to buy store goods. When they repress that, they create a
pressure cooker situation. This didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.”
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images
to the retaliation now underway in different facilities across the
country, the National Lawyers Guild, which endorsed the strike back in
the spring, has offered its services.
gotten quite a few reports from different states, from prisoners who are
facing retaliation for their participation,” said Tasha Moro,
communications director for the National Lawyers Guild. “We’ve offered
to file notices of claim on their behalf, which notifies the prison that
a suit could be filed, letting them know the abuse in these reports are
being documented and allows prisoners time to find local
cause of striking prisoners may get a signal boost from the release of
The 13th, a documentary on prison labor directed by Ava DuVernay,
which comes out on Netflix Friday.
an interview Thursday, DuVernay said she was “in full support” of
the strike. “I think it’s incredible and tragic that it’s not being
carried on the front page of newspapers,” she said. “No one even knows
this is happening.”
prisoners across the country face retaliation for their actions in the
form of solitary confinement, the loss of their job assignments,
increased security, and forced relocation, organizers both within and
outside prisons are planning for a second wave of strikes this month.
The next set of labor actions will begin Oct. 15, according to
Justice, a prisoner in solitary confinement in Holman, who helped plan
the national Sept. 9 strike, said he hopes that lawyers and individuals
will go directly to jails such as his to document conditions and
advocate for prisoners. “You all want to tell a story,” he told BuzzFeed
News. “The Alabama prison system is slavery with a thousand-dollar suit
Cora Lewis is a
business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis
reports on labor.