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Alabama Prisons Facing Third Class-Action Lawsuit

In a lawsuit filed in federal court for the Middle District of Alabama on December 12, 2023, a group of state prisoners accused the state Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) of denying them release so that the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) can continue to force them to work, for little pay, in a “modern-day form of slavery” for government and private employers to whom they are “leased.”

Named plaintiffs, all of whom are Black, accuse BOPP of ignoring a 2015 state law entitling them to a presumption of parole, trapping them instead in a resurrection of Alabama’s notorious “convict leasing” program. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that kept low-risk Black prisoners incarcerated to provide labor for private firms, which benefitted from paying DOC below-market wages for their labor, swelling the coffers of the state and its county governments at the prisoners’ expense.

Some 575 private firms and 100 government agencies have profited from the system, the suit alleges, enjoying a $450 million annual windfall over the past five years by using prisoners for landscaping, sanitation, metal fabrication and fast-food work.

“They deny us parole to keep us doing the jobs,” said Ventress Correctional Facility prisoner Alimireo English, one of the plaintiffs.

Joining the prisoners in the suit are the Union of Southern Service Workers and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Mid-South Council. They claim that the artificially low wages the prisoners are forced to accept for toiling in fast food and poultry processing have frustrated attempts to unionize workers in those industries. An additional plaintiff, the nonprofit Woods Foundation, claims that “the unfair and unlawful functioning of the parole system” drives up the nonprofit’s costs to provide free investigations for those challenging overly long sentences and wrongful convictions.

Though firms are required to pay minimum wage, that has remained stuck since July 2009 at $7.25 hourly—just $290 for a 40-hour workweek. Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average weekly wage for all Alabama firms in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes fast-food outlets, was $430 in the first quarter of 2023. The difference goes into the pockets of private firms that are DOC’s “customers” for prisoner labor. The prison system also takes a 40% cut of what is actually paid out. That leaves prisoners working for government agencies—as janitors or landscapers, for example—taking home the same $2 per day that state law set for them in 1927, almost a century ago.

Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with Quinn, Connor, Weaver, Davies & Rouco LLP in Birmingham; Faraino, LLC in Vestavia Hills; Altshuler Berzon LLP in San Francisco; and Justice Catalyst Law in New York City. See: Council v. Ivey, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00712.

The new suit joins two other class-actions that DOC is defending. In one a federal judge has already found mental health care in state prisons “horrendously inadequate,” calling out DOC for persistent short staffing that prevents mentally ill prisoners from accessing the care they need. See: Braggs v. Dunn, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:14-cv-0060. That same shortage of staff, especially guards, leaves state lockups “riddled with prisoner-on-prisoner and guard-on-prisoner violence,” as the federal Department of Justice alleged in the other suit. See: United States v. Alabama, USDC (N.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:20-cv-01971.

In the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2023, DOC admitted that assaults had jumped 41% in state prisons in a year, climbing to 2,073—about three quarters of which involved prisoners attacking other prisoners. The rest were assaults by prisoners on guards. The number did not include any assaults by guards on prisoners, though one of the plaintiffs in the latest suit, Robert Council, filed another complaint in November 2023 accusing a DOC guard of encouraging fellow prisoners to kill him. “Even if y’all killed him, I’ll make sure nothing happens to y’all,” Lt. Jeremy Pelzer allegedly told Crips gang members incarcerated with Council at Limestone Correctional Facility. The prisoner is represented by attorneys with the Civil Rights Corps and Menefee Law, both in Washington, D.C., along with Augusta attorney John P. Batson. See: Council v. Hamm, USDC (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:23-cv-00658.

Despite the legal wrangling, underlying problems of short-staffing and overcrowding go unaddressed. DOC still had 700 guard vacancies in September 2023, while its lockups held 8,000 more prisoners than they were designed to hold. Meanwhile BOPP granted release the month before to just a fraction of those prisoners eligible under the agency’s own guidelines; following those would have resulted in paroles for 80% of those eligible in August 2023, but instead BOPP granted release to just 5%.

All of which leaves more prisoners to reckon with DOC’s abominable number of deaths, which climbed to 325 in 2023, up 20% from 270 the year before. At about 1 in 63, the chance of dying in an Alabama prison is far higher than the 1 in 101 risk a typical American faces of a fatal car crash—and nobody is caged in a car and forced to endure that risk.  


Additional sources: Anniston Star, The Guardian, New York Times, WBMA

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Related legal cases

Braggs v. Dunn

Council v. Ivey

Council v. Hamm

United States v. Alabama