By Annabelle Parker and Melvin Ray, October 2014
First published on Alabama Prison Watch
Q: How did you come about starting the Free Alabama Movement, what was the thing or issue that triggered it? And were you all in general population? You are still in solitary (the hole) now, right? Please elaborate on how it works from there, and what is possible, from there.
F.A.M. came about in stages and events that were somewhat unrelated to F.A.M. at the time, but which ultimately served as seeds for the future. Small steps like coming into prison and joining a law class that was being taught by a mentor. Then, latching onto the coattail of a revolutionary PP and Black Panther named Richard “Mafundi” Lake and hearing phrases like “organize” over and over again.
And growing from a student in the law classes to a teacher. Then, taking on individual cases that started to open my eyes to the systematic approach in which the judicial system was incarcerating black youth in droves. At this time, I had not evenheard the phrase “mass incarceration.”
The next step along the process was when I got transferred to St. Clair prison, where a whole new world was opened up to me because cell phones were prevalent and so abundant. I was introduced to technology . . . and started to learn about social media and new ways to reach out and interact with society.
By this time, I had learned that the law was not practiced as it was written, and that the criminal justice system did not really care about Justice at all.
Nevertheless, just having access to technology, I began a campaign to bring awareness to my case, and started a website called Innocentmanmelvinray.com. Being still just a tad bit naive’, I thought that I could reach out more effectively with the technology that the phone provided and get the kind of help I needed. Needless to say, this notion, too, was soon disabused.
But the one thing that this failure did do to help bring F.A.M. into existence was that it allowed me to see that there were many other people out there doing what I was doing, dealing with the same issues, but who were, likewise, not having the success that we deserved. That insight ultimately lead me back to what Mr. Mafundi always stressed: “organize.”
Realizing that there were literally thousands of “Innocentmanmelvinray’s” out there (the most poignant one that I ran across that stays in my mind is Davontae Sandford’s case), I started asking myself how can I bring these collectives together? That question sprung the concept of “FREE ALABAMA” into my mind. At that time, I was in solitary confinement and it was during that time that I had learned about the December 9, 2010, shutdown by the men in Georgia. I told myself that I could take that concept and build around it.
From my early days at Holman prison, I used to talk with two of my Brothers about how we needed to get a small camcorder into the prison. They used to laugh at the thought, because technology hadn’t shrunk camcorders then but I knew that the day was coming when they would be small enough.
From that point on, I began laying the groundwork for how I would start “organizing” my prison, and then my State, and how I would use a cellphone to record, interview, and document everything.
From reading Stokely Carmichael’s book, Ready For Revolution, I also knew that when the time came, we would be bold with our Movement. I wouldn’t allow anyone who did an interview to use a street name or nickname, because I wanted to dispel any pretense of fear in our Movement, plus, I wanted people who watched the videos to be able to go to court records in order to authenticate what people were saying about their cases and the injustices they had received — whether wrongful convictions, excessive sentences, whatever.
So when I got out of segregation I went to work. I started talking to leaders, explaining the philosophy, taking pictures, filming living conditions, and interviewing. I also started writing a manifesto. But in the process of all of this, the final thing that happened was that I read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. She has a passage in there that said that it would take a “Movement” to take down mass incarceration. That was the first time I had saw anyone boldly make that statement, and it crystallized for me what I was doing, and so with that, we went from FREE ALABAMA, to FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT.
Then, I contacted the one person who I knew would support me 100%, because over the years we had worked on so many other projects together and I knew that this would be the culmination of all of our previous work: Kinetik Justice (g.n. Robert Earl Council).
After I ran down everything to him he said what he always says, “Sun, what you done came up with now?? . . . I can CEE it though. Let’s run it.” And off we went and FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT was officially founded. We haven’t looked back since.
Q: We remember that the FAM first came into view with the work-strike actions inside St Clair. Can you tell us a little more on that please, and how it worked; did you get people to start thinking for themselves and such?
Well, the work strikes, which we call “shutdowns” are the heart of our Movement to end mass incarceration and prison slavery, because the modern Prison Industrialized Complex is an estimated 500 billion dollar enterprise that is financed off of the backs of people who are incarcerated. As most people know, what is taking place within America’s prison system is modern slavery. It’s a hard reality to fathom, yet it is so true.
Starting out, what I did was to evaluate our options, which included litigation, hunger strikes, letter writing campaigns, etc., among others, while at the same time tried to get a better understanding of the system as a whole, and look at the option that gave us the most power to make a change. When I looked at what the men had done in GA, I realized that using labor strikes as a tool of Economic Empowerment gave us our best option and most leverage.
With Alabama’s economy being stagnant and down with the larger economy due to the Recession, I knew that we could have a real impact if we organize around our labor contribution. And with that, I started researching just how much of a contribution we were making to the system. I started with the kitchen here at St. Clair because I used to work for several years at Red Lobster. Using my knowledge from the industry, I realized that in just the kitchen alone, we filled over 60 jobs, with a total labor contribution of approximately 1 million dollars per year. We have people stealing sandwiches just to survive or get a shot of coffee in prison, who were giving the ADOC over 1 million in labor per year.
All totaled, the ADOC is getting about 2 to 3 billion dollars from us in Alabama. Work release deductions, the value of everything we produce, filing fees, store, incentive packages, co-pays, fees.
When I started showing guys these numbers and putting them in terms and a format that they could understand, it made the organizing that much easier.
Once I started looking at the industries here, and started receiving more input and assistance, the numbers really started adding up. In the chemical plant alone, I was able to show the guys that they were producing 25 million dollars-worth of chemicals each year.
When I would show them invoices and then point at their shoes, or ask what they had in their box, it was an undeniable proposition to ask of them if they were being fairly compensated.
The kicker was the fact that most of us weren’t being released and had no opportunity for release, no matter the sentence. Then, the ADOC helped my cause even further when a popular old-timer, Eddie Neal, was denied parole again after already serving almost 40 years. Mr. Neal had two disciplinary tickets in 40 years, and the last one was in 1996. Guys started accepting what was going on with the parole board — they didn’t care about a clear record, good behavior, education, or anything. They were part of the exploitation-for-labor system. All I had to do was help explain to them what they were seeing. They did the rest.
We have to start being honest with ourselves about our conditions and the fact that we aren’t doing anything about it. Giving money to a lawyer is a pipe dream. Being a mental slave to ignorance, which causes one to be dependent upon a lawyer or a judge to administer justice for a constitutional violation is hype. We have to start looking for ways to create our own opportunities. Developing our own politics. That’s what FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT (and now FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT) are all about.
Q: On the website of the Free Alabama Movement [freealabamamovement.com], we can view films and photos you made and posted on YouTube about the things you were struggling to improve or get rid of, and this is a powerful means to make clear what you are grieving and what you are up against, right? Is it more effective than grievances (which you no doubt must file in order to be able to go to court, but that is a very difficult way, especially from prison with no income).
Really, as I said, the videos were something that I had envisioned long before I envisioned F.A.M. I knew that society had no real idea of what conditions were like in prison, because I see the commentary about us having “air conditioning and eating steaks.” So, initially, the videos were designed to show people how inhumane conditions in prison were.
As I spent more time in prison, certain things started to stick out to me: mainly how the ADOC lies and controls the narrative about prisons through a media that is denied access to the prisons, and that the media is force-fed a narrative that they weren’t questioning.
When officers assault the men (and women), we were faulted. When conditions were complained about or lawsuits filed, the ADOC “lied or denied.” So, I was determined to change that narrative. But then, in 2012, I finally stumbled across the Dec 9, 2010, actions in GA, and the two things that stuck out the most to me were: (1) they were ostracized in the media, and (2), they were beaten after their peaceful shutdown. The GDOC accused them of all types of false motives, and then went in after the fact and brutalized them. I knew that I had to document all of our grievances and produce proof for the public of why we were protesting. I was not going to allow ADOC to control the narrative in the media about our legitimate complaints.
After getting some guys to overcome their fears of repercussions for going on camera, something unexpected happened: the Men began to open up about our conditions in ways that they never had before. It sparked conversation, opened up debates, and it revealed to guys the fact that most of us had NEVER been heard before about our circumstances, our cases, or our desires to be free, to be fathers, to receive education, etc. No one, prior to F.A.M., had given us that chance to speak in our own words. So guys opened up and gave us something that can never be taken away. For the first time, WE TOLD OUR STORIES, IN OUR OWN WORDS,WITH OUR OWN DIALECTS AND PHRASES. And we posted it all over YouTube, Facebook, and anywhere else we could find a space.
Q: You made connections with people inside MS prisons and now they too are organizing peacefully in a similar way? Please elaborate.
Yes, it is correct that we made connections with people in Mississippi who are organizing FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT and Non-Violent and Peaceful Protests for Civil and Human Rights. But we have also made contact with people on the inside in Georgia, Virginia, and California, and we have also connected with families and organizations in Florida, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
In fact, the people in Mississippi, and in particular, a woman named LaShonda Morris, found us because of our media. She was looking for someone to help who was about this work of confronting mass incarceration and prison slavery for real and not just talking. Thankfully, she found FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, and we have ALL been blessed by her efforts, because she is serious about what she is doing, and she has connected us in ways and with people that we never would have been able to do on our own.
On November 22, 2014, FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT will host a Rally and Information Session in Jackson, MS, and we are confident that the future is bright for FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT & FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT UNITED/UMOJA.
Q: On the website for the F.A.M., freealabamamovement.com, you mention that you work in a nonviolent way. Can you tell us why you put emphasis on this, and what you mean with nonviolence?
Well, first and foremost, FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, and now, FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT are about Freedom. We are about getting people out of prisons where we are being warehoused, exploited and abused, so that we can return home to our communities.
But at the same time, we also acknowledge that some of us have made mistakes or have shortcomings that we needed to address, and we want opportunities to correct them so that when we are released, we can be better sons and daughters, better husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and be assets to our communities.
In addition to our mistakes, we have also been demonized by the media, by police, by prosecutors, and by prison officials, So, we have taken it upon ourselves to demonstrate who were and the changes that we have made.
No one wants violence brought into their communities. People want and need answers to violence, so it is important for us to demonstrate that we are Non-Violent, we are Peaceful. Some people have committed violent crimes, while others have committed crimes that are labeled as violent, but where no one was harmed, while other people have been wrongfully convicted of violent offense. But, whether you are innocent, guilty, mentally ill, or whatever, no one is getting out, and the prison system wants to justify our incarceration by telling society that we are “violent predators,” “killers,” “dangerous gang leaders and drugs dealers,” etc. These labels are applied 20, 25 years after the facts, after change, after maturity, after education, repentance, and after some children have grown from 18 to 43, yet no one can get out because the D.A.’s will still get on T.V. and revert back to a 40-year-old crime and argue that the person 40 years onwards still exists, even though this D.A. has no up-to-date knowledge of who this person is decades later.
So we are taking this platform and we are going to do our interviews to make our presentations to the public. We are going to make our complaints against this system to the public, and then we are going to back that up by demonstrating to the public that we can now address our issues Non-Violently and Peacefully.
Violence is nothing more than a thought process. It is part of a chain of options that human beings arrive at when confronted with a problem. What we have done is that we have educated guys about this chain, and provided them with alternative remedies to solving problems without resorting to violence.
Our Brother Earl “Tyrese” Taylor started a program at St. Clair called Convicts Against Violence, with an emphasis on Education and Mentoring. With this program, we were able to reduce the violence level down to what one might see at a work release, from right here at a maximum security prison.
But the ADOC didn’t want this, so they removed the warden who allowed us to implement this program, and replaced him with a Black warden, Warden Davenport, and the first and only program he disbanded was C.A.V. Now, 4 1/2 years later, St. Clair has reverted back to one of the most violent prisons in the entire country. This is why F.A.M. stepped in, to again stop this State-engineered violence, and what happened? Over 5000 Men across the State jumped immediately on board and supported it. The State responded by labelling myself, the co-founder, and F.A.M. as a security threat group. Lol. We have NEVER had a single incident of violence, yet we are a threat. Not to the security, but to the system of mass incarceration, prison slavery, and the exploitation of people.
Go figure, since they attacked F.A.M. and our Non-Violent and Peaceful Movement, 4 men have been murdered in 2014 alone, and the Equal Justice Initiative, led by Bryan Stephenson, has filed a class-action lawsuit and been calling for the removal of Davenport. This lawsuit was not filed against the entire ADOC as is usually the case, but exclusively against “Bloody St. Clair.” So that should tell you how bad things have gotten.
Stopping violence is easy, and we didn’t receive any funding from the ADOC to run our program. But violence pays. 80% of all people who enter ADOC are functionally illiterate. Education teaches better decision making. We can teach that if they didn’t obstruct our efforts. They will claim that they offer schools, but if what they were teaching was working, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
More and more prisons are removing educational programs and replacing them with factories. Some, like Bibb Co., don’t even offer GED classes. We have to organize against this profit motive, because no one is going home so long as we submit to being exploited for labor and living under inhumane conditions that we should be outraged about. We have to return the narrative to Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-Entry Preparedness, because the State narrative has caused too much pain, destroyed too many communities, destroyed too many families, and destroyed too many people who have something of value to offer society — even in the lessons learned from our mistakes.
Q: We also read that you have written a Bill titled ALABAMA’S EDUCATION, REHABILITATION, AND RE-ENTRY PREPAREDNESS BILL.
Can you tell us a little about the background and aims of this Bill? And can outside support help promote it?
Did any politician approach you yet and (how) would you want to work with someone from politics who takes your issues seriously?
Let me answer the second part of your question first. No, we have not approached any politicians, and we have no intentions or desire to. If what we are doing is going to work, we have to make it work ourselves. The men and women have to understand that the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) has created an economy that is bases on Free/Cheap Labor to compete in the global market against cheap manufacturers like China and Indonesia. The problem is that they have incarcerated over 2.5 million people and they have created a system that is TOTALLY dependent upon US. If we stopped working, then their current model of prisons, including private prisons stopped working.
They are now making over 500 Billion dollars off of our labor. They don’t have a way to replace that. People in society don’t work for free. This system was created by politicians, they are the ones getting the kickbacks, they approve the contracts, and they are the ones who invest their pensions into the stocks of these corporations. So, it makes no sense to solicit them. Would you give up a multi-billion dollar enterprise in exchange if you didn’t have to?
The money that they are making off of our labor is the money that they are using to fund their prison budgets. Nationwide, prison budgets total 86 billion dollars, so where is the remaining 414 billion dollars going? Ask the politicians??
If we take our labor off our the table, then the States are left with normal budget intakes to pay for prisons. Believe me, when we take our labor back, only then will prisons get back to Corrections and Rehabilitation. Every system in America will start back giving good-time, and even the Federal Prisons (who started the profit-based model with Unicor) will have to go back to granting parole. Additionally, we will finally be able to bring political prisoners like Mumia, Iman El Amin, Larry Hoover, Mutulu, and so many more home.
Funny how we “CONTROL” a 1/2 trillion dollar market, but we go to bed hungry at night. Our bill, which we call the “FREEDOM BILL,” will be the model of what prison will look like after we take control of our situation. If they (the State) ever want to see their assembly lines roll again, then our Legislation will be the functional equivalent of a “labor contract.” No freedom, no labor !!!
Our Bill, as it is titled, will place Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-Entry Preparedness at the forefront of our stay in prison – not free labor. Voting rights will be restored. LWOP and Death Sentences will be repealed, and conjugal visits will be a part of rehabilitation. Also, media will have unfettered access to prisons. With alternative media like VICE, TruthOut and others, everything will be out in the open.
But our Bill won’t just give out a free pass, people will have to “earn” their freedom through completion of a curriculum that will address the needs of the individual. No GED/Diploma: You have to get one. No skill or trade: Gotta get one. No life skills: Time to grow up and learn what it takes to be a man and provide for you family and community.
There will be exceptions, because there are exceptional cases. But the way things work right now, no one knows when they will be released, if they will make parole, or what they can do to guarantee that when they have served sufficient time, addressed their issues, that they will return home to their family. Our Bill will provide that certainty for most, and it will give that comfort to spouses, children, etc., of when the loved one will return home. They will know, they will be a part of it, and they will be able to engage in activities like family visits, conjugal visits, parenting classes, etc., that will keep families together when a member of the family has made a mistake. If we are producing 500 billion dollars to live with rats, spiders, mold, abusive officers, and serve decades on end, with no end in sight, then surely we can unite and make a stand.
No doubt they can afford to pay us for any labor that we perform. Otherwise, something has to give. If we can clean them up, we can tear them down. However, we come in Peace.
Q: Can you tell us a little on your support for the women incarcerated in one of the worst prisons in this country, Tutwiler Prison for Women?
Our hearts go out to the women at Tutwiler. I mean, you add all of the issues that go on in prisons that they suffer equal to men, then add on the fact that they are raped by men, assaulted by men, impregnated by men, and forced to have abortions, or forced to give birth. And after 20 years of abuse, only 6 officers prosecuted, with the most time being 6 months. One got 5 days.
F.A.M. organized a Protest Rally at Tutwiler. We created a Facebook-page to support them. I have personally interviewed approximately 25 women who have served time at Tutwiler either online or on my radio show.
Due to the DOJ being inside of Tutwiler, we have not been able to contact them directly. But we support them and they are a part of F.A.M. My plan was to draft a section on Women’s Rights for the FREEDOM BILL, but we never got cooperation from some of the women who had served time at Tutwiler who we connected with. They were too busy to help the women they left behind. I am bitter about that, and I let them know it.
Nevertheless, F.A.M. stands firm in our convictions. We aren’t going anywhere without our Women. If they can’t get speak right now, fine. We will reserve their places until they can.
Q: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those inside California’s (and other states’) prisons? Inside its Secure Housing Units (SHU’s)?
To our Brothers and Sisters in California, we say Stand with us and form FREE CALIFORNIA MOVEMENT. The economics of your system is the same as ours. We are all making the same license plates, cleaning the same feces off of the walls, cooking the same scrambled eggs, doing the same electrical work for free. The same people who are investing their pensions in private prisons and mutual funds in Alabama, are the same ones who are investing in California.
Serving 30 years in Alabama is the same 30 years in California. Your influence carries great weight here in the South, It’s time for us to unify across State boundaries because that’s what mass incarceration has done.
These systems can’t function without our labor. They used the drugs to fund the Iran/Contra war. They then used the “war on drugs” to justify mass-incarceration. Then, they turned the prison population into modern slaves. Now, it’s our turn to act. We have to leave the crops in the field. We have to make them turn their assembly lines off. Since they are the ones getting paid, it’s time for them to cook the food, clean the floors, take out the trash, do the maintenance and everything else.
If we are to do any more labor, then we have to state our terms and conditions, and foremost amongst them is that we must be afforded an opportunity to earn our freedom. If we must work, then we must get compensated for our labor. If we must remain here without tearing these walls down, then we must be treated humanely.
My message is not just to the men and women in these solitary holes. I, myself, am in one right now. My message is to the whole 2.5 million victims of mass incarceration and prison slavery. Everyone !!! All of us around the country, let’s just shut down. Wherever you are, just stop working. If you are in solitary confinement, spread the word to those rotating in and out. When they try to lock up those who organize and lead the shutdowns in population, don’t even give up.
Some men can’t survive solitary confinement, and the administration will threaten them if they participate in the shutdowns. So let’s just clog up the cells.
Let’s all just shut down and see how their 500 billion dollar system works without us, and then see if they change their tune about our FREEDOM. EVERYBODY !!! Just shut down.
Thank you Spokesperson Ray for your encouraging and strong, bold and outspoken activism and advocacy!
You can contact the Free Alabama Movement via:
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Facebook group: FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT
FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, P.O. Box 186, New Market, AL 35761
Free AlabamaMovement – Book in PDF by Melvin Ray