Families protest prison conditions at Alabama Capitol rally

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Attendees gather during the Break Every Chain Rally, held on the step of the state Capitol, Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, , in Montgomery, Ala. The protestors are asking for prison and parole improvements. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

People with relatives and loved ones in Alabama prisons rallied outside the state Capitol Friday to decry what they described as inhumane conditions behind bars and a parole process that sees few inmates released.

“Men are being murdered. Men are overdosing. Men are taking their own lives,” said Eric Buchanon, a former inmate who does prison ministry. “Somebody said, ‘Well, how can we stop people from taking their own lives?’ Well, if you had enough officers operating the prisons, who could monitor these men like they are supposed to, that would help.’”

More than 200 people joined the rally outside the Capitol. Tombstones were placed on the white marble steps of the Alabama Capitol to represent the men who died in Alabama prisons from suicides, murders, and overdoses.

The rally followed a three-week work strike at many prisons aimed at seeking changes to state sentencing laws and the parole system. Inmates refused to show up for jobs in prison kitchens, janitorial services, and laundries, jobs that keep the prisons functioning but for which the inmates receive no pay.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said Friday that two facilities for men continue to have complete work stoppages, and three facilities have partial work stoppages. Inmates and activists have accused the Department of Corrections of using pressure tactics in an attempt to end the demonstration. Officials said the reduced rations and the lack of visits were the result of a prisoner labor shortage.

At the Capitol rally, Sandy Ray carried a photo of the battered face of her son, Steven Davis, who died in 2019 after an altercation with corrections officers at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility where he was incarcerated.

“It’s about the things they are doing to human beings,” Ray said about her continued fight for changes in the prison system.

She said it’s time for state officials to do the “right thing that they should have been doing all these years.”

“If you are going to stay in office, how can you sleep at night knowing (inmates) are sleeping on floors with rats running across them? Roaches are being served with food,” Ray said.

The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Alabama over the conditions in its prisons, saying the state is failing to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff. The case is slated for trial in 2024. Alabama officials have acknowledged problems but deny that the living conditions violate constitutional standards.

Inmates and family members say that conditions have worsened in recent years despite the attention on the system.

The rate of paroles has plummeted in recent years, according to state statistics. The state parole board this week granted parole to just six inmates of the 58 who had hearings, according to a news release

Alabama faces a separate court order to add as many as 2,000 officers to man understaffed prisons but has been unable to fill the positions. Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told a legislative committee this summer that the department has 1,879 officers and 541 vacancies out of 2,420 budgeted positions.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.