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Alabama inmates are on strike, protesting sentencing policies and a parole process

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Thousands of inmates are on strike in Alabama prisons. For nearly three weeks, they've stopped work at jobs in prison laundries and kitchens to protest living conditions and to demand reforms of harsh sentencing policies and the parole process. As the strike wears on, inmates say the state is punishing them by restricting meals, visitors and recreation time.

Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott attended a protest that inmates' families held today on the Capitol steps in Montgomery and joins me now. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Kyle, what are the families asking for?

GASSIOTT: Well, they're trying to draw attention to what they say are dangerous conditions in Alabama's prisons. Here, we can take a listen to what it sounded like this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When we fight...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...We win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When we fight...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...We win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When we fight...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: ...We win.

GASSIOTT: A little more than a hundred people came on buses from around the state. They say conditions in the prisons are disgusting. There are piles of trash, roofs leak, that there are fights and stabbings because there aren't enough guards.

Eric Buchanan was one of the speakers. He's been out of prison for four years and says the strike needs to continue.

ERIC BUCHANAN: The world is being able to see exactly what the conditions are in prison. If they never knew, they are knowing now that the conditions are deplorable.

PFEIFFER: Kyle, back up a bit and tell us, how did this all start?

GASSIOTT: So this began a few weeks ago, shortly after an inmate's sister posted a photo of him online. The inmate looked emaciated, and the photo came with the message get help. Within days, inmates in prisons statewide stopped work.

And this is not the first time conditions in Alabama's prisons have come under fire. In 2020, the Department of Justice sued the state, claiming the conditions at men's prisons are unconstitutional and have led to homicides, rapes and serious injuries.

PFEIFFER: What exactly are the changes the inmates would like to see?

GASSIOTT: Well, we know conditions are bad, but inmates are also looking at sentencing policies that contribute. You know, no one wants to spend more time in prison than they need to. The inmates' demands include repealing harsh sentencing laws and changing the parole and pardon procedures to make them less subjective. So these are big, and in some cases, legislative changes towards improving conditions.

PFEIFFER: I imagine the strike is having an impact on daily prison operations?

GASSIOTT: Oh, yes. The prisons initially cut down - cut meals down to two a day, and weekend visitation stopped. In both cases, the Department of Corrections said they didn't have enough staff. Now they say that things have been restored at all but five prisons where inmates continue to strike. But the families I talked with today, Sacha, say that that's not what they hear from the inside.

PFEIFFER: And Kyle, how likely is it that the inmates will get what they want with the strike?

GASSIOTT: Well, Alabama's governor, Kay Ivey, has said it's not within her authority to make many of the reforms inmates want and that they're unreasonable. The strike has gotten national media attention, and the families are heartened by that, but it remains to be seen. One pastor, Sacha, told me today that he believes if they keep repeating their demands like a song, eventually everyone will start to sing along.

PFEIFFER: That's Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott. Kyle, thank you.

GASSIOTT: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyle Gassiott