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After years of violence and neglect in Alabama's prisons, thousands of inmates strike

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of inmates in Alabama state prisons have stopped work over the past few weeks - in prison kitchens, picking up trash and other jobs - to protest their living conditions and the harsh sentencing policies they say contribute to poor conditions. The work stoppage follows years of violence and neglect in that state's prisons that's so widespread that the Department of Justice is suing the state for its failure to protect inmates. Inmates say that the state is retaliating by restricting access to recreation and visitors and also cutting back on food. State officials deny this, saying these measures are a response to the fact that the inmates aren't working, and thus normal services can't be provided.

Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, has said the situation is, quote, "under control." But reporters who are speaking directly to prisoners say that isn't the case. One of those reporters is Keri Blakinger. She is a staff writer at the Marshall Project. That's a digital news outlet focused on criminal justice issues. She's been reporting on this issue and is in touch with prisoners who are taking part in the work stoppage, and she's with us now to tell us more about it. Keri Blakinger, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KERI BLAKINGER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Keri, tell me, was there ever a precipitating event that led to the strike?

BLAKINGER: There was not. There was some reporting linking it to a couple incidents, but the organizers told me it was actually not any specific event. This was about, you know, a realization that they needed to draw attention to specific legislative issues that they were hoping, you know, they could spark more public conversation about.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that. Like, what are those issues? I understand, first of all, that the labor is unpaid. So that's, you know, part of it. But is it the living conditions overall - like the level of violence, the lack of services? What are the issues that led to this?

BLAKINGER: So it actually hasn't been so much about the conditions. That has been a thing that I've seen reported. But they did issue a list of specific demands, and conditions were actually not part of them. Now, that said, the Department of Justice sued the state prison system in late 2020 relating to issues around conditions, including overcrowding, violence, high risk of death, high incidence of rape. And that has been an ongoing issue. So prison conditions in Alabama have been under scrutiny for years.

So they decided to focus their demands on trying to get out, trying to do less time. They asked for specific legislative changes that would change parole practices and give some of them a clearer path out. They asked for changes around the medical furlough process so that ailing prisoners might be able to get out. And, you know, they asked for some changes, like to habitual offender statutes and drive-by shooting statutes, like specific things that ended them up in prison for long periods of time. And this is kind of loftier than some of the goals that we've seen with other prison strikes that have been around more concrete issues of conditions and labor.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about what was the thinking behind elevating those issues and also the fact that the governor doesn't have the sole authority to address these issues. Was the idea more to just - to hope that public attention would cause changes here? Tell me a little bit more about the logic of what they're trying to do.

BLAKINGER: Yeah, I asked them about this a bunch, too, because I was really curious about that. I think when you think of, like, a prison strike or any kind of strike, you expect there to be sort of concrete demands that are immediately answerable by the people affected by the strike, right? But, like, in this case, the Department of Corrections can't address most of these demands and, as you said, the governor can't unilaterally.

Now, one of them had expressed some hope that, in theory, the governor could call a special session and address some of these issues - you know, have the legislature address some of these issues more quickly. But other prisoners that I spoke to acknowledged that that was not likely, and that was really not their goal. Their goal was simply to elevate these issues and get people talking and alert people as to how problematic these things are for this constituency that is not able to vote and doesn't have a voice.

MARTIN: You've been in contact with several people inside these facilities. Can you talk a little bit about what they're telling you about what the conditions are like?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. So the conditions have for, you know, years been quite bad, and they continue to be quite bad - I mean, shockingly bad. There is - at this point, there is, you know, trash piling up in some of these places. There had been, you know, a few days into this because the prisoners who do these prison jobs take care of things like trash and laundry and food. So that meant that when the strike began, nobody was dealing with the trash. Nobody was dealing with the laundry. And they were locked down and not able to go out to rec. In some units, they were only leaving to go to the mess hall and immediately back. They didn't have visitation. They didn't have school. They didn't have sort of any of the basic things that make prison livable.

And one of the things that caused the most concern, I guess, among advocates and, I think, the most anger among prisoners was when the prison system switched from three meals a day to two in response to the strike. Now, prison officials said that that reduced feeding schedule was simply because the inmates that work in the mess halls were on strike. And that meant that they were not as able to provide a regular food schedule. And the prisoners said that this was retaliation. And when they began sharing some images of what the food looked like that they were being served, you know, it did look like it was worse than usual.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of what's their morale, the people who are still involved. What do they think? Or even if they're not still involved, what do they think?

BLAKINGER: I mean, I think it varies a lot. I think that one of the difficulties of a strike like this is that since there wasn't a clear end date or a clear event that would signal an end, it's sort of hard to - you know, it's sort of hard to have an expectation or be disappointed when that thing didn't happen. I really doubt that any of them thought, oh, we'll strike for two weeks, and they'll change several aspects of state law.

MARTIN: I think I guess the question is, do you think that - do they think they've accomplished anything with this?

BLAKINGER: I mean, what they said was they were trying to draw attention to it. And I think objectively, they've clearly drawn attention. It's gotten a lot of media attention, and I'm talking to you. But I think the sort of longer tail of does this continue to spark a conversation is probably an evaluation they recognize they can't make yet.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of - or do the prisoners you're talking to have any sense of how they think this might be resolved?

BLAKINGER: The ones I've spoken to have mostly said that it seems like this will be resolved when people get tired of being hungry because in addition to getting two meals a day, which are not particularly big meals, they're also not getting commissary. And some people have said, I think this is going to end in a matter of days. And some people have said, you know what? Conditions have always been bad. We can live with this. We can do this forever. So, you know, I think it'll vary from prison to prison.

MARTIN: Keri Blakinger is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. That's a news outlet that is focused on criminal justice issues. Keri Blakinger, thanks so much for talking to us about this.

BLAKINGER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.