“The uprising at Holman prison in Atmore Alabama continues, despite prison being on lockdown status. Seventy prisoners have barricaded themselves in a part of the prison early this morning, just two days after the Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERT) regained control of the prison after a riot involving hundreds of prisoners on Friday night.
An anonymous prisoner describing himself as a mediator who hopes to quell the riot says that prisoners are fed up with unsanitary and inhumane living conditions and double occupancy overcrowding. Alabama’s prison system is dysfunctional and has been the subject of controversy for years leading up to these chain of events. Last summer the federal government was considering intervening and taking over the ADOC after a budget shortfall and a series of both violent incidents and massive non-violent prisoner protests. The State of Alabama avoided the shame of a federal takeover by pulling funding from schools, a move that prisoners say reveals the state’s priorities. “They don’t want people to get an education and lift themselves up because then they’ll lose their source of free labor” one member of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) stated at the time.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the murder rate in Alabama prisons set a new record last year. The ADOC is failing in its most basic responsibility of keeping their captives safe. Meanwhile, other prisoners are rising above the fray to organize principled and effective direct action protests. In January 2014, FAM organized a historic non-violent work stoppage, refusing to perform tasks they say amount to slave labor, without which the prisons could not operate. Holman was the first prison to start that protest, and in response, the administration threw those it identified or suspected of leading the protest into solitary confinement for years.
The response to recent events at Holman from the Free Alabama Movement echo John F Kennedy’s adage that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” One of the men confined to solitary in Holman since Jan of 2014 (and thus separated from the unrest in the general population) said this: “We’ve appealed to the courts. We’ve appealed to the Legislature. We’ve appealed peacefully and nonviolently. So, I can only see this past weekend’s events as a continuation of the prisoners plea for Help. Warehousing Overcrowded Dormitories are unsanitary and unsafe. Oppression breeds Resistance.”
The ADOC’s response, on the other hand, has been consistent: botched attempts to impose greater controls and retribution onto the prisoners. Friday night is typical. When prisoners were seen fighting, a correctional officer deployed such excessive pepper spray to break up the fight that the combatants eventually turned on him. The Warden then came and escalated the conflict until he also was attacked. At this point, the staff fled the building, and hours later the CERT squad had to come in to regain control of their institution.
What followed was a weekend of intense prisoner shake-downs, where the prison was put on lockdown status, and guards came through, cell by cell, destroying prisoner property and tossing their cells to find contraband. At least five prisoners were sent to isolation and threatened with additional charges. This morning, despite the warden’s best hard-case efforts to lock down and control the institution, another prisoner was stabbed and in response, 70 committed prison rebels gained access to and barricaded themselves inside another part of the prison.
According to WKRJ news out of Mobile Alabama, their source said to today’s events were “as spirited and violent as the one that took place on Friday” he said to expect casualties. WKRJ also reported that “Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn [head of ADOC] praised the work of the warden, officers and response teams” after Friday night. They included interviews with community members in Atmore, the city closest to Holman prison, who said the prison need more guards and more funding. This is typical of a prison system’s response to prisoner protest or rebellion. There is no accountability for the administrators or staff.
Prison, more than any other space in America, is where government agencies exercise great and invasive power over people. Prison administrators are given broad control of people’s movement, communication, diets, intimate relationships, toilet and sanitary needs. This is a space of the most disproportionate power in American society, and yet when things go bad, the people who hold the vast majority of the power refuse to take responsibility. Failure to operate safe, stable institutions is often rewarded with greater funding and support when things go wrong.
This needs to change. We need to recognize that those who hold the keys to the cages must be held accountable for what happens inside their facilities, especially in cases like Alabama’s DOC where prisoners have pursued every avenue to demonstrate grievances and bring a peaceful change but were rewarded with retribution.
Warden Carter Davenport has failed miserably in his duty to run this institution. He should not be allowed to operate a correctional facility any longer. If Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn cannot recognize this, and continues to praise Davenport’s failure, that begs the question as to why he is operating the Alabama Prison system. Of course, these men will likely respond that they need more money, more guards, more free reign in the operation of the prison.
This is not a solution. The culture in Holman prison is toxic. A notebook surfaced over the weekend, written by a correctional officer H Coates, which sheds some light on the culture of control in Holman prison. Coates writes: “I get the feeling sometimes to shoot them all and not feel bad about it. Annoying insects that should be killed off the face of the earth and finally judged for their sins once and for all (sic).” Davenport and Dunn want to solve the problems in Holman and ADOC by hiring more officers like Coates.
Meanwhile, the prisoners have laid out an alternative path. Free Alabama Movement wants real pay for work work done by inmates, they want an end to free slave labor and torture. Free Alabama Movement has outlined reforms in a language lawmakers can understand and it has been published in the Free Alabama Movements “Freedom Bill” online at FreeAlabamaMovement.com.
The Freedom Bill is an expression of their belief in rehabilitation and education. They believe in shutting down the school to prison pipeline, in paying anyone who works a living wage for their labor, regardless of which side of the prison walls they find themselves on. They believe in preparing people for re-entry and healing communities stricken with poverty and unemployment. They believe that these reforms will end mass incarceration, saving money and truly addressing crime and inequality in this country.
Some might say the Free Alabama Movement’s vision is unrealistic, but compare it to Carter Davenport or Jeff Dunn’s vision. Those twos envision an ADOC that necessitates not only slavery to operate, but also peaceful cooperation from those whom they enslave and torture. The unrest in Holman prison underlines the utter absurdity of that vision.”