Alabama is one of the states giving their voters the chance to amend the 13th Amendment: the exemption from slavery or involuntary servitude unless your are convicted of a crime. Ironically, the incarcerated individuals in the state’s prisons recently went on strike, refusing to do any of the free labor they were tasked with, per AL.com. However, their strike went beyond labor exhaustion and shined a light on the egregious, inhumane conditions they’ve experienced.
According to the report, the inmates began their strike Sept. 26 as their relatives and local activists protested outside the offices of the Alabama Department of Corrections in Montgomery, demanding a change to their living conditions. At the Ventress Correctional Facility, Cordarius Caldwell, who’s served 17 years of his 23-year sentence, gave The Root an exclusive look into the conditions that led them to strike.
First, in the dormitory-style holding area, Caldwell said the space is severely overcrowded.
“It’s like 60 or so beds in here, so maybe 120 people but it’s more than that, probably 200. And you only have four toilets that 200 people have to use and maybe five sinks, one water fountain and two [shower] stalls,” he said. Those facilities, he says, are infested with black mold. Also, everyone’s beds are right next to one another. With only two fans in the air, proper ventilation is nearly impossible.
On top of that, inmates protested their lack of proper feeding. Caldwell recalled being given raw meat and spoiled food across his three daily meals. However, after the strike, the facility made matters worse by implementing a “holiday meal schedule” (two cold meals a day) which the inmates took as retaliation for their refusal to work, per the Montgomery Advertiser.
“We knew we weren’t going to be fed right due to the protest. They were just feeding us peanut butter sandwiches or a piece of bread with cheese. Majority of the guys that just entered the prison system really didn’t know how it was going to go. But we already knew that was going to be the consequence,” said Caldwell.
The strike ceased Friday, October 14, after the inmates couldn’t take another week of practically starving. A crowd of more than 200 activists and supporters stood outside the state capitol in solidarity with them.
Activist Sarah DeArmond, CEO of nonprofit Voiceless Behind Bars, said inmates are also subjected to violence due to the facility staff shortages and lack of security. DeArmond said the Alabama inmates she advocates funneled her information and evidence detailing incidents they’ve witnessed.
“When I first heard about [the strike] in September, I remember seeing these videos of inmates being beaten. I saw videos of a prisoner being beaten who was on suicide watch,” said DeArmond. “So, they all joined together and said ‘No more. We can’t do this bear-backing labor and well, you’re beating us.’ And we’re finding out now, the repercussions of them going on strike were more beatings.”
DeArmond said on the steps of the capitol that she heard the mother of Steven Davis, Sandy Ray, tell how her son was stomped to death by corrections officers three years ago. Yet, these individuals are essentially stuck facing senseless violence from officers and other inmates because they are constantly denied their chance to come home.
Diane Caldwell, Cordarius’ wife and an activist with Both Sides of the Wall, said her husband’s parole was delayed for another five years in January - an issue spanning across all the state prisons. Cordarius has taken self-esteem classes, anger management classes and completed his GED, but to no avail.
“They have a 98 percent denial rate. They are eligible for parole. They’re coming up for parole. However, it’s not being granted to anyone. Even though the institutional parole officer comes in, assesses them and recommends that they are eligible for parole, once they go up in front of the parole board, they’re being denied,” Diane Caldwell said. “They have a living death sentence.”
How convenient? Overcrowding the prisons, forcing them into free labor and denying them the chance to reenter society so they can funnel more money into the pockets of those benefitting from it. These incarcerated individuals’ quality of life right now (or lack thereof) is just what the 13th Amendment loophole was designed to do.
“You know, people are confusing this with me saying criminals shouldn’t be punished and I make clear more than once that’s never what I said. I said they should be treated humanely. Just because you’re a prisoner does not make you inhuman,” said DeArmond.