The inside story of the prisoner strike at one of the country’s deadliest prisons

What it takes to keep a movement alive.

A dormitory in the William C. Holman Correctional Facility
A dormitory in the William C. Holman Correctional Facility

“This is my life now.”

Tom, a pseudonym for a prisoner who agreed to talk to ThinkProgress on the condition he remain anonymous, is completing his seventh year at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, serving a life sentence for a robbery he maintains he didn’t commit. But during a clandestine phone call from his dormitory, he wasn’t just talking about living the rest of his life as a prisoner with no chance of parole.

Speaking on his contraband cell phone, he was also talking about his role as a protest organizer and a peacemaker at one of the most violent prisons in the country.

This year, Holman made national headlines for deadly violence that’s claimed the lives of prisoners and correctional officers alike. Stabbings and suicides are the norm, with three people wounded and a death by hanging in October alone. A guard was killed in September, and a warden who has since retired was stabbed in March.

In an interview with The Guardian, a local pastor who visits the prison regularly described the normalized violence as a “bloodbath.”

Tom knows the prison is a hotbed of aggression and brutality for both inmates and staff. But he’s also adamant that “violence is a symptom” of inhumane administrative policies that govern the facility — the very ones that inmates are currently protesting, in solidarity with prisoners across the nation.

Most days at Holman, people are kept on lockdown. They are, essentially, stacked on top of one another, with more than 100 people forced into dormitories so small that some have to sit just so others might stand. According to Tom, recreation time is almost non-existent. Prisoners don’t go outside at all, 25 days out of every month, and they have no educational or social programs to occupy their time.

Those are the very conditions that have fueled violent uprisings in the prison all year.

In March, prisoners stormed hallways, lit fires, and flipped over beds, demanding payment for “mental pain and physical abuse” and a robust rehabilitative program. Many were injured in the fray, and several others were hurt during similar protests in subsequent months.

Then on September 9, the anniversary of the Attica Rebellion that ended with 43 people dead, Holman inmates joined what’s considered the largest national prison strike in the country’s history — a coordinated work stoppage that Tom and fellow prisoners in 24 states organized for months. Not only are they protesting the cruel and unusual conditions contributing to violence inside, but modern-day slavery that forces inmates to perform back-breaking labor for cents a day, while giant corporations and prison executives receive billions in profit.

In the past few years, prisoners in several states, including Alabama, initiated isolated hunger strikes, work stoppages, and violent riots in protest of their barbaric treatment. But the strike launched last month marks the first time in history that inmates all over the country are collectively fighting their mistreatment.

“Slavery is legal in the Thirteenth Amendment, by way of being used as a form of punishment. The Eighth Amendment says that no person shall be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment,” Tom said. A member of the Free Alabama Movement, a collective of freedom fighters demanding human rights, he is one of several orchestrators of the protest at Holman. “There’s no way we can have an Eighth Amendment and have a Thirteenth amendment also. That’s impossible.”

Nearly seven weeks have passed since the ongoing strike began, although its impact has yet to be seen.

Tom told ThinkProgress that Holman administrators immediately brought prisoners from other facilities to replace the workers on strike. They are also trying to quell all forms of rebellion by transferring influential prisoners to different facilities and swapping in younger inmates with no standing friendships or alliances with people inside Holman. That, in turn, creates tension and causes more violent clashes that the prisoners pushing for change have to organize around.

Nevertheless, Tom insisted that the work stoppage itself was never the end goal and maintained that prisoners are still in the fight of their lives.

Protesters are still working diligently to educate fellow inmates about the mechanisms administrators use to subjugate them, and get that same message out to the public. In that sense, the protest movement is still going strong, Tom said. And prisoners already notched a key victory: convincing guards to go on strike against the dangerous conditions of confinement that impact them as well. One day last month, they too refused to go to work.

Meanwhile, organizers are working to reduce the amount of violence in the prison, in order to keep the protest alive and growing. Tom facilitated an informal peace summit in September, gathering prisoners together to get them talking and thinking about the conditions contributing to aggression in the prison. They walked dorm to dorm, asking for violence to cease.

Once people opened up, they came to understand that they have similar frustrations, a product of their oppressive environment.

“The warehousing of prisoners, forced labor with little to no pay made legit by way of the [Thirteenth] Amendment…are the root causes of the hopelessness and the anger resulting in the misplaced aggression and violence,” Tom wrote, in his personal notes, of the shared sentiment underlying the summit.

Dorms at Holman are covered in mold.
Dorms at Holman are covered in mold.

People began to realize that building unity is more important than ever, as prison administrators attempt to divide them.

“As one participant of the peace summit stated, ‘We effect zero change by perpetuating violence amongst us. We have to fight these laws and bring light into this dark place if we expect anyone to hear us and empathize with our cause enough to aid and assist us,’” Tom wrote.

Looking to the future, prisoners are currently planning another work stoppage. But as violence persists, only time will tell if their solidarity will remain strong enough to make their protest a powerful one.

Despite recent violence, Tom is confident that it will.

“These men transformed the spirit of the prison,” he said of the summit. “Hearts were touched and the seeds of a new culture of nonviolence amongst prisoners was planted.”