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Alabama Prisoners Bring Awareness of Abusive Conditions Through Hunger Strikes

by Kevin Bliss

In March 2019, nine Alabama prisoners went on a hunger strike after being placed in solitary confinement without being given any reason other than “preventative measures.”

The prisoners, members of Convicts Against Violence or the Free Alabama Movement, were housed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility when the prison was raided by 300 guards searching for contraband. The search resulted in 30 prisoners being transferred to the Holman Correctional Facility with 10 being held in solitary at the recommendation of Warden Cynthia Stewart.

Robert Earl Council, also known as Kinetic Justice, was the first to go on a hunger strike to protest his treatment, demanding to be returned to general population. He was followed by eight others who also wanted to know why they were placed in solitary. Attorney Donna Smalley, representing the group, said none of the prisoners had committed any infraction that required their placement in solitary. It seemed the only reason they were moved was because they were activists and organizers.

“I am on a peaceful hunger strike. I am not suicidal ... but I’m doing this because I’m being held in Holman Correctional Facility segregation without any justifiable reasons why I was taken from St. Clair correctional facility, general population, on February 28th, 2019, without any incident, nor disciplinary infractions,” the hunger strikers said in a statement. “I’ve not been involved in any Riots or escapes.... I feel as if my U.S. constitutional rights are being violated and I’m being deprived of my liberties, being placed in segregation without any due process of law.”

According to Swift Justice, an Alabama prisoner and co-founder of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, prison officials cut off the water to the hunger strikers’ cells – which was confirmed by the DOC.

“As of today all those on the hunger strike at Holman Correctional Facility are being denied water until they eat and will be forced to live in a cell with no way to flush accommodating toilets or consume freshwater,” The Final Call reported on March 26, 2019.

Council co-founded the Free Alabama Movement, and in 2016 published a paper on the group’s website titled “The Holman Project.” He accused prison officials of removing older and more respected prisoners from the facility and replacing them with “younger ... and misguided youth.” Council noted that due to that change, the housing units were becoming violent war zones.

Alabama’s prison system is already well known for its high number of murders and suicides. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.24; Aug. 2018, p.30; June 2017, p.51]. Prisoner advocates fear the destabilizing practice of such transfers will add to more violence in state prisons.

Of the eight other prisoners who went on hunger strike – Tyree Cochran, Mario Avila, Marcus Lee, Kotoni Tellis, Antonio Jackson, Jr., Corey Burroughs, Earl Manassa and Earl Taylor – most ended their protest and were reportedly returned to general population in late March 2019.

Alabama prisoner Kenneth Traywick, Jr. went on a hunger strike the following month at the Limestone Correctional Facility in protest of retaliatory transfers and the use of solitary confinement. He was placed on a force-feeding regimen on April 21, 2019.

Another hunger strike at the Limestone prison, involving five prisoners, including Traywick, began in June 2019. According to Truthout.org, they were protesting “corruption, abuse, and a lack of accountability for inhumane conditions in the state prison system.”

Their demands included an end to a practice known as “bucket detail,” which “refers to shackling and taping prisoners to buckets for days on end until they defecate into the bucket multiple times, allegedly in an effort to discover hidden contraband.” Other demands were for intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice, the firing of corrupt officials at Limestone and an end to the “abusive use of solitary confinement.”

Solitary has long been an issue in the Alabama Department of Corrections. U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ruled in February 2019, in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that the DOC had violated the Eighth Amendment in its use of solitary, which aggravated conditions for prisoners with mental health issues.

In September 2019, Traywick reported he faced retaliation after speaking with the news media about conditions at the Fountain Correctional Facility. He said he was moved to another prison, stripped and put in a suicide watch cell for two days.

“Never in my life have I ever said I was suicidal,” Traywick stated. “I’ve never had mental health treatment. I believe that was a ploy to say they had a reason to transfer me out of the institution. That’s what I believe.” 

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Sources: newsweek.com, montgomeryadvertiser.com, apnews.com, al.com, theappeal.com, finalcall.com, truthout.org