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General News    H2'ed 7/8/20

"Nasty as Hell": Work and Food in Alabama Prison, February-May, 2020

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(Author's Note: Inmate sources are kept confidential to protect their safety and privacy. Each prisoner is identified by a randomly chosen letter. A version of this article first appeared in Red Crow News in June, 2020)

Alabama's prisons have a long history of unsanitary, overpopulated, generally dangerous living conditions. Prison laborers in Alabama are unpaid for their work. In 2017, Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) reported that Alabama is one of six states in the country to pay its imprisoned laborers nothing, not much less than other states pay.

The State also has a long and ongoing history of outbreaks of various illness throughout its prisons, such as TB, scabies, and others. Ventress Prison was still dealing with a TB outbreak around the time coronavirus hit the United States.

Prisoner X, an inmate in Holman reports that a February wave of illness, diagnosed by the medical staff there as "flu-like symptoms," is sweeping through "all eight tiers" of the prison.

Though not himself sick, X witnessed the illness sweeping the prison, primarily, he says, because understaffing issues meant he had to work extra hours and shifts in more parts of the prison at his unpaid job. Several times a week, from February to early March, X worked 16 hours a day without pay.

X is typically careful to wear gloves, especially when passing out food, but a "shortage of gloves" in Holman Prison in February and early March, he says, meant he "had to share some gloves I had with one of the other [unpaid laborers] on another tier." He and the other prisoner did their best to use the gloves when passing out food, only removing them right after, then washing their hands, all of which takes about thirty minutes per use, he says.

The tiers normally have five or six hall-runners, but then, X continues, "It was just one or two hall-runners that was able to work, [which] impacted the main hall-runners, because some of the guys got so sick they had to work double shifts. Some of those main hall-runners work[ed] all day and all night."

X has worked multiple times a week for over 10 years, his shifts eight hours a day for several years, then 16 hours a day the next few. He works more than other inmates he knows.

Asked to comment, Samantha Rose, spokeswoman for The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) stated via email that "there was not, nor is there any medical evidence of, a wave of illness" or glove shortages.

X says new rules were instituted in March, which prevent prisoners from working more than eight hours at a time, and his shifts have been cut back down to eight hours. (ADOC is not aware of any such policy, Rose said in an email.)

While the work has been exhausting at times, and being paid would benefit X and his loved ones, he says he nonetheless always has and always will value his job. The work provides a "platform for kindness " a platform to serve God," and a "chance to bear witness, and share the gospel."

The week from the 11th to the 18th of February was different, he says.

"You've got to understand something," X continues. "I think, too many times when you have somebody coming out on the hall [for] back to back [shifts], it eventually wears you down, because you get no rest. You have to get up, and you've got to be a servant "You have to have a servant's attitude, [which] means you've got to humble yourself, and stay humble, even when people are being rude to you. So, mentally, that poses challenges to me, and physically, because I had to work [for] two weeks straight. I've never worked the hall like that."

Rose says prisoners may work double shifts through the night. She notes they are allowed to rest afterward.

X did not himself get sick during February and March. Instead, due to exhaustion from the constant work, every day started and ended feeling "spiritually disconnected from God."

Regarding social distancing, X says people are "right up on you." He can "reach out and touch them" them when he is working, and people are "absolutely" fewer than six feet away from each other at nearly all times.

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Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer and contributing editor for Hard Times Review. His work has appeared in The Alabama Political Reporter, New York Journal of Books, The Brattleboro Reformer, Scheer Post, The Manchester Journal, The Commons, The (more...)

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