In a historic move, in July of 2020, the United States Department of Justice declared the Alabama men’s prison system unconstitutional.
According to Alabama Appleseed, this marked “the first time in the 39-year history of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the U.S. Department of Justice found an entire state prison system for men operating in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
As part of a proposed plan to address this, Governor Kay Ivey announced on Feb. 12, 2019 that the state would be building three new prisons. It was later confirmed that these prisons would be built and owned by private companies and would be leased to the state.
This decision by Ivey was met by significant backlash by many activist groups, such as Alabamians for Fair Justice. Much of the discontent was due to the lack of warning for local residents, who found out through local newspapers and friends they would have a prison constructed nearby.
Residents of Brierfield, Ala. reacted to this with extreme opposition and formed a Facebook group called “Block the Brierfield Prison” to coordinate their efforts.
The Alabamian reached out again to ADOC regarding some of the concerns of Brierfield residents but received no response.
Ivey has insisted this plan is the best for the state and has made every indication that she will continue forward it, despite the DOJ’s decision to file a lawsuit for failure to come up with “a settlement that would correct the deficiencies identified by the department’s investigation.”
According to the press release on the DOJ website, “For over 20 months the department has engaged in negotiations with the state without achieving a settlement that would correct the deficiencies identified by the department’s investigation.”
The argument over Alabama’s prisons has aided in the formation of other groups, such as the Alabama Students Against Prisons, a coalition of students from a variety of campus’s whose mission statement is “organizing tomorrow’s leaders to combat the racialized systems that perpetuate Alabama’s prison crisis.”
While ASAP has a wide range of volunteers and associates, it has five board members that lead the group: Morgan Duckett, a senior industrial design major at Auburn University, Hannah Krawcyzk, a senior public administration major at AU, Solomon Balaam-Reed, a senior political science major at the University of Montevallo, David Zell, a junior political science major at the University of Alabama and Isabel Coleman, a junior philosophy major at Yale University.
The group had originally been planning a march in Montgomery on Saturday, Jan. 9 but moved the event online due to safety concerns after the riots in D.C. on Jan. 6.
“For something that – like, the virtual side of it – expanded in less than 48 hours, I think it went fantastic, all things considered,” said Krawcyzk. “Folks were engaged and excited and I mean, you can look on social media and see the opposition to this…we did have a phone banking portion of this to elected officials where we all kind of just hang out and made calls that we disagreed with this prison construction plan strongly, as students and as people who live in Alabama. I think it went fantastic and it was only the first step, as we’re going to hopefully continue doing events like that.”
Going forward, the group plans to partner with some other groups focused on criminal justice in the state.
Duckett explained that ASAP has plans to join with a coalition called “Alabamians for Fair Justice.”
“We’re in talks with all of these people because this issue is so unilaterally invested, like almost every person in Alabama has a reason to speak up with this,” said Duckett.
While Ivey has largely remained unresponsive to the concerns voiced by various groups, several legislators have responded. According to Duckett, ASAP has made progress speaking with both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, many of whom do not like Ivey’s executive overreach regarding the prisons.
“They’ve been kept so in the dark by the governor that often they don’t know as much as our investigations have revealed…it’s understandable and it is also shocking because you want your representatives to know this and be aligned with you. But we’ve had a pretty good experience talking with legislators at the state level,” said Duckett.
In addition to stopping the construction of the new prisons, they are demanding the removal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, among other changes they believe will help improve the conditions in the Alabama prisons.
For Balaam-Reed, there was a more personal note to some of these demands. He stated that he had family members who had been in the prison system for over 20 years for marijuana.
“This is [a] state that has a well-known history of bigotry and racism, both in prisons and out of them…Being a Black student from Alabama who goes to school in Alabama – I think it is such a unique position and one that I get to use my privilege that I have gained with being in college to y’know try and do the best good that I can…I think that one thing we’ve all tried to do with our protest is centering Black voices and having Black empowerment and activist speaking on issues that affect them, because it does affect us more than other people,” said Balaam Reed.
When asked if they had a message for students in Alabama, Zell said, “We all want to have a state we can be proud to call home. Don’t feel like this isn’t your fight…it is going to take everyone in this state coming together to oppose this plan.”
Speaking directly about Montevallo, Balaam-Reed said “even though we are a small campus, and we are a blue dot in a red wave in Alabama. We’re not alone.”