Alabama inmates go on strike to protest ‘deplorable’ conditions, unpaid labour

A photo shared online shoes the poor conditions in a cell in one Alabama prison.
A photo shared online shoes the poor conditions in a cell in one Alabama prison. © Twitter / @FREEALAMOVEMENT

Guards asleep on duty, meagre meals and cells covered in filth: incarcerated people across the southern US state of Alabama have refused to work since September 26 in protest against shocking conditions in overcrowded facilities, including violence, neglect and poor hygiene. The strike has brought prisons, which depend on and profit from inmate labour, to a standstill. The inmates say they won’t go back to work until changes are made to Alabama’s criminal justice system.


Thousands of inmates at all 15 state prisons in the Alabama correctional system have been on strike for over a week to protest what they have called inhumane treatment and conditions.

A video posted on Twitter shows a group of Alabama inmates refusing to work.

Videos shared online, as well as accounts from those incarcerated, attest to deplorable conditions within the prison system. Alabama prisons are known to be particularly violent and unsafe, with high rates of rape and homicide compared with the rest of the United States.

‘There is a total lack of security and institutional control’

Earnest Lee Walker Sr. is currently incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility, which has been the subject of numerous complaints and concerns over dangerous and horrific conditions. Before moving to St. Clair in March 2022, he was incarcerated in two other facilities – Holman Donaldson and Fountain. He has served 15 years of a life sentence without parole.   

The facility is in deplorable and appalling physical condition. The infrastructure is shot to shit. It rains in some of the units and the facility is infested with vermin. It is not fit for humans to live in.

A video shows the bathroom at a prison in Alabama.
A video shows the filth in a cell in an Alabama prison, with what appears to be blood or excrement smeared on the walls. “I asked for some cleaning supplies and they said ‘No’,” says the person filming the video.

I've often and repeatedly seen the correction officers asleep while on duty, due to the tremendous amount of understaffing which does not allow them to provide adequate protection or security. Due to the understaffing and overcrowding the dorms are normally left without an officer present. Therefore, you have a lot of altercations between the incarcerated citizens. Some have resulted in death, serious physical bodily harm and injuries.

[The guards] pretty much just leave us alone. The doors never lock so I can’t go to bed. There is a total lack of security and institutional control. They bring in dope and cell phones to pacify us.

In 2020, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the State of Alabama and the Department of Corrections, saying that conditions in the prison system amounted to a constitutional violation of cruel and unusual punishment. Still, some say conditions have only worsened.

Alabama’s prison population is over 20,000, all living in facilities designed for only 12,000. In 2021, the vacancy rate for prison guards exceeded 50 percent. 

A video shared on Twitter shows a dormitory in an Alabama prison where 300 incarcerated people are confined to sleep in one space.

Meanwhile, deaths in the prison system are soaring. At least 13 people have been killed in Alabama prisons so far in 2022. The St. Clair facility where Walker is currently incarcerated has the United States’ highest prison homicide rate.  

The 2020 Justice Department report highlighted the prison system’s inability to prevent violence and sexual abuse between prisoners. On Twitter and TikTok, inmates have posted graphic videos showing inmates lying dead or injured on the floor, while no security or medical personnel are there to help them.

Correctional officers have also been accused of violence and mistreatment. A video shared on Twitter on September 27, 2022 shows correctional officers beating a person in custody.

‘Paying a man 25 cents an hour is not paying’

In Alabama, like in other states, incarcerated people are expected to work, and prisons depend on inmate labour for things like food service, laundry, cleaning and the commissary – a store where inmates can buy food and hygiene items. 

Prisoners in the US make an average wage of 52 cents an hour, but Alabama is one of several states where most inmates are not paid at all. 

And incarcerated people cannot refuse to work – many face punishments like solitary confinement or denial of certain privileges if they do not. When incarcerated people began to strike, prison staff were forced to take on the work. This led to prisons reducing meal services, with many inmates and their family members accusing facilities of “starving” them to end the strike. They also cancelled weekend visitation.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to another Alabama inmate who goes by the name Swift Justice. Co-founder of the advocacy group Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle (UVOTCJ), he says that labour conditions in the prisons are akin to slavery.

Up to 90 percent of any prison in America is functioning from inmate labour, all the way from the kitchen, snack line, laundry, yard work, trash, maintenance, infirmary, janitors and factory labour.

When individual [inmates] abandoned their slave jobs they took away the prison's engine. It can't function without them. In essence, the Alabama prison system was in crisis and this made that crisis a crisis on top of a crisis. Paying a man 25 cents an hour is not paying. Here, federal law requires all to be paid minimum wage unless you are a criminal. 

Revolutions don't bring change overnight, but the change I've seen is within the slave himself. More understand that if they do not push for change, their destiny will be to rot in these prisons maybe never seeing the free world again.

‘We’re not just striking to be agitators to the system, we’re striking because we’re tired’

Walker has personally participated in three prior strikes in the Alabama system, and he says prisoners' complaints go far beyond poor conditions and unpaid labour.

This is our third strike and it was planned around between February and April of this year. It was specifically planned to bring attention to the inhumane treatment of incarcerated citizens throughout the system. It was also planned to show the inhumane living conditions that the incarcerated citizens unfortunately live in, and to contest medical treatment that we feel is below the standard of care. 

Lastly, the strike was planned specifically to address the criminal justice system still using antiquated laws to sentence us. We wanted them to repeal the habitual felony offender law [Editor’s note: which mandates life imprisonment for a person convicted of a felony after three previous felonies, even if the crimes were non-violent or decades old]. I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole with non-violent prior offences. We’re not just striking to be agitators to the system, we’re striking because we’re tired of doing time and we’re ready to go home. The laws have changed and we should be given an opportunity to petition the court for resentencing. 

A group of advocates held a protest outside the offices of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) in Montgomery on September 26, eventually presenting a list of nine demands to end the strike. The demands included changes in sentencing and parole. The majority of parole requests in Alabama are denied, leading to overcrowding among the incarcerated. 

Other demands include changing laws to prevent racial biases in sentencing and criminal enforcement. Despite making up 28 percent of the population, Black people in Alabama constitute 43 percent of the jail population and 54 percent of the prison population in the state, according to the most recent data from 2017

The FRANCE 24 Observers team also spoke to Walker’s daughter, LaKenya Lindsey, who also has other family members currently or formerly incarcerated. She has been sending countless messages to elected officials to demand change, but has received no response. She says the entire system needs to be changed in order to prioritise rehabilitation. 

“Of course, people did something wrong to lead them to get incarcerated, but really we feel like the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. The system does not rehabilitate people to come into society and be productive citizens,” Lindsey explained. “And the second thing is that statistics show that because of the colour of my skin, just because I’m Black, I would likely get more time in prison than a Caucasian person.”

We reached out to the Alabama Department of Corrections for comment but has not yet received a response. A spokesperson for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said on September 26 that incarcerated peoples’ demands were “unreasonable” and would “never happen in the state of Alabama”.

While some inmates went back to work on October 3, many are continuing the strike, saying they will not budge until demands are met.