Q&A with the Free Alabama Movement

by Jim Brash, Editorial Board member, The North Star, & member of The Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State on August 11, 2016

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Answers by Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun (Melvin Ray) Founder- Free Alabama Movement

TNS: When and why was the Free Alabama Movement started?

F.A.M. was started in August 2013. At that time, there were many issues plaguing the lives of the people who were incarcerated in Alabama’s prison, and it had become obvious to many of us that we would have to become directly involved in providing solutions to those problems. There were ( and still are) inhumane conditions; there is little investment in education and rehabilitation; the courts were not resolving legitimate complaints concerning wrongful convictions and sentences or inhumane conditions and treatment; the parole board and other agencies were all complicit in the operation of mass incarceration, and we had come to accept the fact that the so- called ” civil and human rights organizations either were not coming to the rescue or they, too, were exploiting mass incarceration for personal gain. F.A.M. was formed out of necessity for survival against what we know as genocide.

TNS: What are the goals of the FAM?

Our main goal is the passage of our Alabama Freedom Bill. But beyond that, we have to be the impetus behind a change in what has become accepted as the norm in the prison setting in this country, and that starts with organizing and the ability to reach inside the prisons throughout this country to build coalitions around our shared issues.

TNS: Why should folks on the outside care about prisoners, about convicts, especially those that have no one on the inside?
First and foremost, we are neither “prisoners” nor “convicts.” We consider those names to be demeaning and part of the psychological process created by the state whereby, first we are dehumanized with these labels, and then becomes easier for the public to accept the system of oppression that goes on in the prisons. They did the same thing when we were called slaves, niggers, etc. Now, though, the word is prisoner or slave. We are human beings, plain and simple, and part of the human family.
Also, it’s not so much that people on the outside “should” care about us simply because of our confinement so much as it is the fact that the people on the inside should not only care more about what we are facing, but we should care enough about our humanity to not accept it and doing something about it. Our focus has to be on the inside. People on the outside can only care to the degree that we know and fully understand what is going in. For those of us on the inside who are living this out on a day to day basis, we can’t afford to wait for people on the outside to develop compassion and understanding. Our lives are at stake and in the balance right now, so we have to be doing something NOW!!!

TNS: What is the reality prisoners are facing around the country that average citizens of this nation don’t know about but should?

People on the outside should know that the institution of slavery and all of its barbarianism and inhumanity never ended in this country, but that it was transplanted into the prison system. People should know that slavery went from an accepted custom and practice, to the law of the land by way of the 13th Amendment to the United States constitution. Many people in America function with the mistaken belief that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, when in fact, the 13th Amendment merely naturalized slavery as an industry that came under the control of the government through the court system.
When the 13th Amendment says that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. . . “People need to realize that the economic industry of slavery forever became a government industry. Only the government can issue out “punishment for crime” or “duly convict”. This makes the government the slave holder and the convicted person becomes the property of the State. As such, upon conviction, we are forced into labor that serves as the undergirding of our State’s economy.
When people look at the wildfires burning out of control in California, do they realize that over 4000 of those firefighters are men and women who are incarcerated? When a family eats McDonald’s, do they realize that the uniforms being worn by the person taking their order and the patties in those meals were made by people in prison? The clothes and shoes in department stores like Wal Mart and Victoria Secret are made by prisoners. Just to name a few, John Deer, JC Penney, & AT&T are companies that are profiting from prison labor. On and on, the scale of prison labor is endless, and all one has to do is google search a phrase like “companies that use prison labor” and people will find that even their dentures and eyeglasses are sold by companies that invest in harsh laws to keep people incarcerated so that they can be forced to work for free.
Business owners and CEO’s hire lobbyists who solicit politicians to pass laws that grant them access to prison labor that is then used to produce billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services each year. Some investment corporation like Berkshire Hathaway purchase shares in companies like, say, Wal Mart. Then, they purchase shares in private prisons and thereafter build factories in those private prisons that produce products for Wal Mart.
Then, we have US soldiers eating MRE meals that were made by men and women in federal prison. Their uniforms, boots, night vision goggles, and even weapons are made with prison labor. And just like on slave plantations, this labor is extracted by force.
Finally, the women in prison (and some men) are raped, sodomized, impregnated and everything else in between. They are state property too. In Alabama, the US Department of Justice conducted an investigation after receiving complaints from the women at Julia Tutwiler prison, and found that sex crimes have been occurring for almost two decades. Many children were born. Many children were aborted under duress, force or worse. Yet, neither the DOJ nor anyone else has endeavored to find out how many children were born or where those children are today.
Nurses, doctors, and officers are all complicit in these sex crimes, yet most of these government workers still have their jobs and their normal families – ‘- and their freedom. While the surviving children are orphaned off, auctioned off, or simply unaccounted for and their mothers remain in prison.

TNS: What is the level of corruption within the Alabama penal system?

Every layer of the system is covered in corruption. We clandestinely filmed almost every area of a few prisons in Alabama and posted it all across social media. Alabama prisons are at 200% capacity, and that’s with 29,000 people. In 2012, there were over 32,000 people in Alabama prisons. Not one lawsuit was filed by the many “prison rights groups.” Not a single Fire Marshall closed a prison down, despite the fact that some work facilities were over 400% capacity. We have video footage of rat, roach and spider infested kitchens and dorms, yet health inspectors routinely pass inspections.
They are receiving federal funds to run programs that either don’t exist or exist in name only but with no real function. You can go to any prison in the State on any given day and find property that has been dropped off by family and friends of officers to be repaired by people in prison. And there are industries ran by prisons like the cattle ranch and fisheries but these foods never make it into the prisons. And we haven’t even touched on the medical neglect, the private no-bid contracts for incentive packages, or the usury prices at the canteen.
The system itself is corrupt. From the false arrests, the biased forensic science labs, to the sham trial, the outrageous sentences, to the human warehousing it is all corrupt. Corruption is the standard operating procedure when human beings are put to market and bought, sold and traded. The shares of private prisons are listed on the NYSE, so when you ask about corruption, that speaks for itself.

TNS: Are there political prisoners in the Alabama penal system?

Yes, there are political prisoners in Alabama, the most known of whom is our great and revered Elder Richard “Mafundi” Lake. But really, “political prisoner” is somewhat of an antiquated term when we talk about the current 3 million people incarcerated, because with the onset of the war on drugs, people were no longer incarcerated because of their political consciousness for the most part, but because of our ignorance and our ability to be controlled and manipulated by media portrayals of “gangsterism” as a reality. In that respect, we now have “prisoners of politics” like the war on drugs, which spurned laws like mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, juveniles in prison, etc.

TNS: Is the FAM in contact with political prisoners around the country, like Mumia Jamal or Leonard Peltier?

We are in direct contact with some and indirectly connected to others. FAM uses social media in ways that are very uncommon to most in prison because of our access to cellphones and our open advocacy for more people in prison who also have access to cellphones to use them to help us build and connect this Movement. FAM is not hard to find and we are not afraid to lead out front on social media. Everyone can’t risk such exposure and certainly doesn’t need to take on such risk. That’s where FAM can aid and assist. We can help get the message out from the inside and to make sure that we stay in control of our message, in our own words and on our own terms.

TNS: What is the current legislation or bill that the FAM supports seeing the passage of in the state of Alabama that pertains to prisons and prisoners?

The only legislation that FAM supports is the legislation that we drafted ourselves, and that is our FREEDOM BILL. We encourage the men and women around the country who are organizing to also draft their own FREEDOM BILL and then start organizing around that. Don’t wait on some politician to draft some bullshit legislation like Prop 47 in California or SB 67 in Alabama that amounts to window dressing. We know better than anyone which laws they are using to mass incarcerate us, and we have the legal minds to draft our own Bills.

TNS: Does there need to be a prisoner’s bill of rights nationally? What should be in those bill of rights?

Yes. A few of these provisions should center around the rights of women and children, especially as it pertains to infants and newborns. There should also be provisions for mandatory education and parole guidelines that make parole mandatory upon completion of a certain curriculum. Also, no child under the age of 21 should be sent to an adult prison, and people with mental health issues should be immediately removed from prison. Officers need to be better educated because it’s difficult to get uneducated officers to prioritize education to the people under their custody. Right now in Alabama, all you need is a GED and 19 years old to get a job here. Some of these officers have been officers for 20+ years and still only have a GED. They are functionally illiterate too, and their focus is strictly on security. They can’t help motivate people to do something that they themselves lack motivation to do.

TNS: Many people believe (myself included) that prison is form of control. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, to a degree, I agree that prisons are a tool for control. But the term has to be fully defined so as not to be limiting. Any conversation about prisons has to start with the 13th Amendment because, especially for black people, this is where the authority to incarcerate us came from. Before the 13th Amendment, black people were not in prison. We didn’t have enough freedom to commit any crimes. And if we did, those matters were primarily addressed on the plantations, not in courtrooms.
After the passage of the 13th Amendment, the slaveholders devised to use the law to re-enslave black people so as to protect their economies and to maintain the social order of white domination and black servitude. So, yes, prisons are used as a control devises, but the question is, to control what?? The Answer is: to maintain control of their wealth and of black people as tools or machines of production.
If you look back on the history of prisons, you will see that black people didn’t enter into the prison systems until after passage of the 13th Amendment. And if you read books from our reading list like, Slavery By Another Name, or Worse Than Slavery, or How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, you will see that the first prisons, like Angola, were former slave plantations. The only thing that changed was that the slave based economic system went from the hands of private citizens (Master Bob) to being owned and controlled by the States (Department of Corrections).
The former slave masters, who had lost their property (slaves) because of the 13th Amendment, became wardens, politicians, and judges, etc. Their jobs became ensuring that the newly freed slaves were cast back into servitude in the prisons. They immediately passed laws like the Black Codes, which were the first laws of Mass Incarceration. Then, they made the arrests. Adjudged us guilty, etc., and then turned us over to the wardens, who put us to work under their convict leasing economic system as part of the state’s economy.
In a poor, agrarian based state like Alabama, by the late 1870’s, prison labor was accounting for over 70% of the entire state budget. This means that state employees like judges, legislatures, teachers, police, etc., all depended upon prison slave labor for their salaries. These were the jurors and witnesses at trials. This same economic model still goes on today.
By virtue of his position as the Chief Executive Officer, with control over the Federal Bureau of Prisons, President Obama is now the largest Black slave holder in US history. He has the power to commute, pardon, or free the 160,000 or so slaves under his control.

TNS: Prison is big business. We have for profit prisons that are now suing states because they are not incarcerating enough people. These same for profit prison companies are lobbying to change laws in order to incarcerate more people as well. What needs to be done to combat this?

There is only one thing that can be done to combat this, and that is the tactic that we are using and promoting in FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT: work strikes and boycotts of the commissary, incentive packages, and phones, etc. We can’t blame anyone else for the fact that we, as incarcerated men and women, get up and go to work each day producing goods and providing services that generate the revenue that pays for our own incarceration and enslavement. This is the contradiction of the institution of slavery: there can be no slavery without the participation of the slave.
That’s the theme of our article titles, “Let The Crops Rot In The Field”. You can find it on our WordPress blog. We have to let the crops rot in the field just like our Ancestors did. This is the economic warfare that we have engaged in.
We have this narrative out there of the field nigger versus the house nigger, and the house nigger is looked upon negatively, while the field nigger is glorified. When you think about it, though, the field nigger is the bigger problem because the house nigger can’t cook the food unless the field nigger plants it and picks it. The house nigger can’t iron the clothes until the field nigger plants the cotton and goes and picks it. And, the master can’t pay off his loans or accumulate wealth unless the field nigger continues to harvest the crops that are sold on the market. The field nigger needs to sit his ass down somewhere and let the damn crops rot in the field.
For the people who contend that people in prison should work, we say that they are welcome to come in and do the jobs for free because we plan to shut down around the nation and Let The Crops Rot In The Field. Let the Factories Go Idle. Let The Canteen Items Expire and Spoil, and Let The Phones Sit On The Wall. And the correctional officer can cook and clean, which is legally their jobs to do. (And they should know that I like my eggs over easy, sunny side up.)

TNS: What can activists and citizens on the outside do to help precipitate the dismantling or the Prison Industrial Complex?
Outside supporters can help us the most in three ways:
First, they can help to organize the family members that they see on visitation days and communicate with, to become a part of our Mothers and F.A.M.ilies network. This is outlined in Step 2 of our 6-Step Plan of Action 2015.
Second, they can help us stage protests at the prisons, jails, and detention facilities for youth and immigrants, etc. We can’t profess to be agents of change or revolutionaries while at the same time mimicking mainstream politics. The Dems and GOP have their conventions at these Assembly Halls, and I be damn if the orgs who claim to be against the system of mass incarceration ain’t having their conventions in the same places. These meetings and conventions need to be taking place at the prisons.
Last, they can help us push our S-To-P Campaign Against the School-To-Prison Pipeline. With this Campaign, which you can learn more about in our WordPress blog, we conduct protests at companies that invest in the prison pipeline like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, etc. But, we use a strategy where we mobilize all of our people around the country to only one company at a time so as took consolidate our power.
For example, we would protest at multiple Starbucks stores around the country (which uses cups made from prison labor) all at the same time. One person at 50 stores is far more impactful than 50 people at one store. We then reach out to their customers and present our case for how these companies are investing in prison slave labor and show how if these companies would build factories in poor communities instead of in prisons, this would reduce the need for crime as a means to support oneself.
These companies could further invest in after school programs instead of lobbyist who the employ to solicit politicians to enact laws that allow them access to prison labor and no-bid contracts.

TNS: Do #BlackLivesMatter behind the prison wall?

Not to everyone. And definitely not to people like Soros, who funds BlackLivesMatter while making millions of dollars off prison labor. I won’t ever forget when I saw the BLackLivesMatter platform from one of their first national meetings (I think it was in Cleveland), where they said Formerly Incarcerated Lives Matter. smh.

TNS: Is mass incarceration the New Jim Crow? If it is, how and why?

It is not the New Jim Crow in the sense that Jim Crow was a system of social control that regulated people’s conduct in society and how we were permitted to interact with white people in that society. Mass incarceration, on the other hand, is simply the same old slavery. It is the system of control that is based in economics and free labor. In Jim Crow, we could not get jobs. In mass incarceration/prison slavery, we are forced to work under pain of death — one resists to long or too hard.

TNS: The criminal justice system has institutionalized racism as one of its foundation cornerstones. Do we need to change not only how it functions, but also the social, political, and economic system that supports it?

To me, the criminal justice system institutionalized the institution of slavery. Racism is secondary to the economics because race is only used after the fact in determining who will be targeted do the free labor. See, if you took all of the black people out of the prison system and replaced them with all white people, the system would still exist. But if all people in the prison system all stopped working and producing revenue, it wouldn’t matter what color they are, because the system would collapse.
They say that over 80 billion dollars is invested each year into the US prison system, but you never hear anyone say how much is made off of that 80 billion or what the Return On Investment is, or even how much of that 80 billion is offset by the phones, canteens, incentive packages, court costs, filing fees, etc. In Alabama alone, we estimated conservatively that by refusing to pay minimum wage of $7.50 per hour, the ADOC saves about $ 218,000,000 annually in labor costs from their use of free labor. Alabama has appx 29,000 people, so add minimum wage to the cost of employing appx 1 million Laborers out of the 3 million people incarcerated nationwide to that 80 billion that they are already spending on warehousing, and you will see why the focus in mass incarceration must be on work strikes and economics, not race.

TNS: What are the alternatives we should be using instead of sending people to prison for non-violent offenses?

It’s not okay to send anyone, no matter what the crime is, to the infrastructures that we call prisons today. People sleep on concrete slabs with little or no mattress, eat food that is marked unfit for human consumption, live stacked on top of each other, receive subhuman medical care, raped, beaten and killed by guards, put into torture cells called solitary confinement, and a host of other issues.
People who need help, education, job training or social skills can’t get it. We can’t afford to get caught up in the “violent” versus “non-violent”, especially black people, because we are talking about slavery and genocide. It is not even about the alleged crime committed. If it were about crime and punishment, then George Zimmerman and the police killers, the George Bushes and Dick Cheney’s of the world would be here. They just released the man from prison who tried to assassinate the President of the United States, but I have a friend (Archie Hamlet) who is serving life without parole for possessing 14 pounds of weed. He has already served over 20 years, but now we can buy weed at a dispensary, and they have way more weed on deck than 14 pounds.

TNS: We have tens of thousands of inmates and former convicted offenders whom only crime was marijuana possession. Should everyone that was ever sentenced for marijuana/cannabis possession be pardoned and records expunged, especially in states where it’s becoming legal?

Yes, and they should get their weed back too. And this should occur nationwide. How can we have our last three presidents of the United States all admit to prior drug use, yet we still ostracize and incarcerate people for weed. Obama and Bush used cocaine. They admitted to the crime of drug possession and use, but they get to appoint drug czars and attorney generals to enforce drug laws.

TNS: As prison activists, what types of events has FAM endorsed, sponsored, or hosted – inside and outside of prison?

We have organized work strikes and boycotts in the inside. We have also organized protests at multiple prisons in Alabama, and participated in a few protests around the State. We have organized a national protest against McDonald’s in support of our S-To-P Campaign Against the school-to-prison pipeline. We also started and successfully ran our own BlogTalkRadio show, The People’s Platform, for over two years.
We have continued to push our social media, including our YouTube channel.
We have endorsed the Free Mississippi Movement, the Free Ohio Movement, the Free Virginia Movement, the New Underground Railroad, IWOC, The Ordinary People Society, Clear The Airwaves Project, and a few others. We support the California Hunger Strike and Work Strike, and the December 9, 2010 demonstration in Georgia.

TNS: What is the September 9th Prisoner’s Solidarity Day about and how can activists help?

The September 9 is about continuing the Movement that has been going on around the country against mass incarceration and prison slavery. For Free Alabama Movement, we got involved back in 2012 as we learned more about the December 9, 2010 demonstrations that took place in Georgia. From there we started organizing here and we have no intentions of ever stopping until our goals are reached.
What we have to guard against is making sure that September 9 does not become an event in and off itself, as opposed to understanding that this is just a mile marker on our way to a greater destination.
As for what activists can do, they can take advantage of this opportunity by “adopting” a jail, prison or detention facility as their headquarters (as FAM outlined in our 6-Step Plan of Action 2015) in their area and start organizing. We don’t need marches down Main Street so much as we need protests and demonstrations at the prisons. This has to be about devising an effective solution to a clearly defined problem. Otherwise, we run the risk of turning this great opportunity into a celebration more akin to a holiday.
The men at Attica made a great sacrifice. That sacrifice was for change. So if we don’t absorb their spirit for change and continue on until the change is realized, then we are bringing dishonor to ourselves by using their day of sacrifice.
In 2015, FAM devised a document titled the 6-Step Plan of Action 2015, which can be found on our WordPress blog. Within that document we put forth the plan for a National work strike and protest, and we laid out in simple details how Activists on the outside could assist us on the inside. The main thing that must be taken from this document is that those who are really with us and seeking change must take the Movement to the prisons in every way.
And, the people on the inside must draft their own Freedom Bill legislation so they can galvanize the people on the inside towards a clearly defined end. Without a Freedom Bill, with clearly defined objectives and laws to reach for, the support of the people will only be for the moment and not for the Movement.
This has to be distinguished from trying to grab headlines or trying to build up membership rolls for members to pay dues. Where you don’t see an emphasis on drafting out these Freedom Bill from state to state, you are seeing some form of fraud that is looking to exploit the people.
I say to activists that we, on the inside, have a plan for our Movement. You can’t possibly want our freedom more than we do. So surely we have a well-reasoned and thought out plan.

TNS: What does freedom and solidarity means to you?

Freedom from inside of these walls means the end of slavery and oppression. Solidarity means those who embrace our plan and implement it according to our design. That does not mean that our plan is perfect or that we will be inflexible when change is needed, it simply means that we have a plan to work from and that we are not here to be preyed upon for exploitation.

TNS: As far as FAM is concerned, what will the revolution look like?

It will look like mothers and fathers pulling up to the prison gates for one last time taking home their sons and daughters. The mothers and fathers of children returning home to be parents. Brothers and sisters embracing. As Mary J said, the revolution will be about “tears of joy.” Right now, oppression brings about tears of pain.

NS: Any advice for inmates, their families, and activists that want to start their own group or coalition?

Don’t wait. Get started today. If you want to be effective and get result, base you plan in economics and follow the money. Listen to those on the inside and follow our plan. And remember that the solution to the problems of prisons begin and end at the prisons, not at some convention or meeting hall.

TNS: Would you like to add anything?

Get informed. On our WordPress blog, we have put out a list of recommended reading material to help people understand what the prison system is all about. The four main books are The New Jim Crow, Slavery By Another Name, Worst Than Slavery, and Dark Alliance. Supplement this material by just doing research. You can Google ” companies that use prison labor” to get an idea of the scale of the money involved.
The key to understanding mass incarceration begins and end with understanding the 13th Amendment and the fact that, contrary to what we were told, this Amendment did not end slavery and it does not even say that it did. When we think of slavery we are taught about the brutality and inhumanity of the treatment of the people. But the whip is not slavery. Slavery is an economic system predicated on free labor. The whip was used to compel the labor. Now, it is the baton, the mace, solitary confinement, etc. that is used to compel the labor.
If the baton, the mace, and solitary confinement were removed. And all of the mentally ill and non-violent drug offenders were released; you would still have slavery so long as you have free labor. And when the free labor stopped, the brutality would return to force the labor. Only when free labor is ended will this system of slavery that now goes by the name of mass incarceration end. Until then, we are not attacking the real problem.

TNS: Thank you for giving our readers so much to absorb. We hope that many of them will be moved to act after reading your responses to our questions. Thank you for your time & keep pushing forward. Solidarity.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dorsey Stebbins August 12, 2016 at 10:38 am

Has this been shared with the Amos Project in Cincinnati?

Reply

Wlliam Schietroma August 12, 2016 at 5:37 pm

I believe if prisons are going into this Direction they should be coopervatives than being used by Corporations

Reply

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