Over the span of four days, two separate riots broke out at one of Alabama’s notorious prisons, the William C. Holman Correctional Facility.
The first one erupted on Friday, when an officer attempted to break up a fight. The incident escalated when the officer was stabbed, followed by the warden. Inmates flooded into the hallways, setting off fires and flipping over beds. According to a prisoner who was able to access Facebook at the time, inmates were fighting for their lives.
The second riot broke out on Monday, after one inmate was stabbed by another. When officers arrived at the scene, approximately 100 prisoners barricaded themselves in a dorm.
During the second uprising, which has since been quelled, participants shared a list of six demands addressing the prison’s systemic failures, from overcrowding to mental and physical trauma. They called for the “release [of] all inmates who have spent excessive time” in the facility, the abolition of 446 Habitual Felony Offender laws, rehabilitative classes, and compensation “for mental pain and physical abuse” they’ve experienced while doing time.
Little is known about the specific participants, but their demands echo the concerns of prisoners and policy advocates throughout the state, who have publicly slammed Holman and Alabama’s criminal justice landscape more broadly.
In 2014, a Southern Poverty Law Center report on the state’s atrocious prison conditions detailed systemic failures within Holman, such as poor sanitation, the solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates for years on end, and gross medical neglect. At the time of the report’s release, prisoners with Hepatitis C were denied treatment by correctional staff. One of them died. A federal lawsuit filed by the organization against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) alleged that only seven out of 2,280 diagnosed prisoners at the facility received treatment.
Last year, the prison was ravaged by the outbreak of a gastrointestinal illness.
Holman has also been plagued by overcrowding because people who are eligible for parole haven’t been released. A 2014 study determined that 25 percent of Alabama prisoners qualified for parole, but budget cuts have caused jams in the system, leaving thousands of people in limbo — and behind bars.
Other prisoners at the facility are serving life sentences because of repeat offenders laws. A state-wide push to crack down on crime in the 1970s led to the creation of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, which enforced strict life sentences for people with criminal histories. If a person has committed a lesser offense, such as a nonviolent drug crime, they can be locked up for good if they were previously convicted of a felony.
During the riots, prisoners ultimately decided to take matters into their own hands.
Across the board, for instance, health care in ADOC facilities is abysmal. Prisoners with severe illnesses or people who are in urgent need of medical help are denied timely treatment. Many inmates have died because staff ignored them. Outbreaks of communicable diseases, including TB and scabies, are common, due in large part to overcrowding. Disabled inmates don’t have access to basic necessities like hearing aids and wheel-accessible exits. Some people are denied life-saving medication, while others are forcefully medicated.
Nearly two years ago, state officials blamed the criminal justice failures — from abuse to overcrowding — on a lack of funding. In February, Gov. Bentley called on lawmakers to approve $800 million in bonds to shut down older facilities and build four new ones.
“We have made significant progress over the last year to improve our criminal justice system, and with the construction of four new and modern prisons, Alabama is poised to be a national leader in safe and effective incarceration of inmates,” he said in a statement last month. “We cannot move our state forward without addressing the issues that have plagued the prison system for decades. We have a good plan to address the issues and with the partnership of the Alabama Legislature, we can solve the issues and make the Department of Corrections more efficient.”