A version of this article first appeared in Red Crow News in June, 2020
(Author’s Note: Inmate sources are kept confidential to protect their safety and privacy. Each prisoner is identified by a randomly chosen letter.)
Alabama’s prisons have a long history of unsanitary, overpopulated, generally dangerous living conditions. Prison laborers in Alabama are unpaid for their work. In 2017, Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) reported that Alabama is one of six states in the country to pay its imprisoned laborers nothing, not much less than other states pay.
The State also has a long and ongoing history of outbreaks of various illness throughout its prisons, such as TB, scabies, and others. Ventress Prison was still dealing with a TB outbreak around the time coronavirus hit the United States.
Prisoner X, an inmate in Holman reports that a February wave of illness, diagnosed by the medical staff there as “flu-like symptoms,” is sweeping through “all eight tiers” of the prison.
Though not himself sick, X witnessed the illness sweeping the prison, primarily, he says, because understaffing issues meant he had to work extra hours and shifts in more parts of the prison at his unpaid job. Several times a week, from February to early March, X worked 16 hours a day without pay.
X is typically careful to wear gloves, especially when passing out food, but a “shortage of gloves” in Holman Prison in February and early March, he says, meant he “had to share some gloves I had with one of the other [unpaid laborers] on another tier.” He and the other prisoner did their best to use the gloves when passing out food, only removing them right after, then washing their hands, all of which takes about thirty minutes per use, he says.
The tiers normally have five or six hall-runners, but then, X continues, “It was just one or two hall-runners that was able to work, [which] impacted the main hall-runners, because some of the guys got so sick they had to work double shifts. Some of those main hall-runners work[ed] all day and all night.”
X has worked multiple times a week for over 10 years, his shifts eight hours a day for several years, then 16 hours a day the next few. He works more than other inmates he knows.
Asked to comment, Samantha Rose, spokeswoman for The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) stated via email that “there was not, nor is there any medical evidence of, a wave of illness” or glove shortages.
X says new rules were instituted in March, which prevent prisoners from working more than eight hours at a time, and his shifts have been cut back down to eight hours. (ADOC is not aware of any such policy, Rose said in an email.)
While the work has been exhausting at times, and being paid would benefit X and his loved ones, he says he nonetheless always has and always will value his job. The work provides a “platform for kindness … a platform to serve God,” and a “chance to bear witness, and share the gospel.”
The week from the 11th to the 18th of February was different, he says.
“You’ve got to understand something,” X continues. “I think, too many times when you have somebody coming out on the hall [for] back to back [shifts], it eventually wears you down, because you get no rest. You have to get up, and you’ve got to be a servant …You have to have a servant’s attitude, [which] means you’ve got to humble yourself, and stay humble, even when people are being rude to you. So, mentally, that poses challenges to me, and physically, because I had to work [for] two weeks straight. I’ve never worked the hall like that.”
Rose says prisoners may work double shifts through the night. She notes they are allowed to rest afterward.
X did not himself get sick during February and March. Instead, due to exhaustion from the constant work, every day started and ended feeling “spiritually disconnected from God.”
Regarding social distancing, X says people are “right up on you.” He can “reach out and touch them” them when he is working, and people are “absolutely” fewer than six feet away from each other at nearly all times.
ADOC confirmed in a past email that social distancing is impossible in prison.
Inmates and former inmates describe similar problems in Ventress Correctional Facility. A former inmate named Gregory Anderson, Jr., released from Ventress on March 25, 2020, noted:
“We had TB outbreaks, meningitis outbreaks […] We’ve had scabies outbreaks. So, I mean, it’s messed up. It’s really not sanitary. If you don’t take precautions to be clean yourself, you’re going to be exposed to a lot of – I mean, there’s no telling what – diseases and viruses.”
He added, “The cafeteria is not sanitary. I’ve found rat droppings in my food. I mean, you might find bugs in your food. In the morning, there’ll be bugs in your oatmeal. Like, especially when it’s warm out, I guess, like, bugs get into where they store everything.”
Inmate “T” in Ventress Prison agrees:
“Most of the time, the food we eat in [the cafeteria], we don’t even know what it is.” He continues, “Let me put it to you this way: Chicken meat don’t grind up like hamburger meat. They have these boxes that say, ‘Chicken Meat,’ and it’s ground up like hamburger. I say, ‘Man, you believe that’s chicken?’”
Food bought in the prison store is an expensive alternative, said T. The ability “to eat something that [inmates] know what it is” is among the higher costs of imprisonment to inmates and their loved ones. The prison store’s food is not healthy either, just more sanitary.
T noted that trying to ensure their loved one is sufficiently taken care of through a prison sentence create a financial burden. Which, T tells me, in turn, is “a burden on us, because we’re looking at it like, ‘We’re taking food out of somebody’s mouth out there that they need.’”
Additionally, T continues, “If a guy gets money – his family might send 30 or 40 dollars, okay – then he is going to try to share with those that don’t ever get anything, so now it’s a burden, because it might be too late before he needs 30 or 40 more dollars, because he forgot to get something for himself trying to help this other guy. But he wants to help the other guy, because the other guy can’t get no money on his own. It’s a mess.”
Inmate Z, also in Ventress, explains, “The food in here is so nasty that people don’t want to go to the chow hall and eat it, so people who have money to spend usually buy their food out of the store or whatever, but that’s high [priced]. All different prices for all different types of stuff, but it’s not cheap.”
One store-bought meal a day, for five days, can cost an inmate or his family approximately “between 40 and 50 dollars a week … 10 dollars a day, something like that,” says Z. Inmates are allowed to acquire money for these items from family, friends, or others on the outside only. They cannot work for money.
Inmate “J” has been imprisoned in Alabama for about two decades, in Ventress the past several years. He’s worked in the kitchen for many of his years in Ventress, he says in early May, “and the kitchen is just … (sigh) out of hand, man. There’s roaches, rats, all types of bugs, maggots and stuff, and different things be living in here and stuff.”
(In her email, Rose describes the rodent and bug presence as “highly exaggerated,” while acknowledging that “some level” of rodent and bug problems “should be expected” in the prison.)
J “ain’t ever seen rats live in the freezer” at any other prisons in which he’s been incarcerated, or anywhere else in his life. But at Ventress, he says, “When we pull food out for the morning shift, we have rats running around like they’re just at home. In the cold freezer … Mhm. It’s difficult, man.”
J, like all other Alabama inmates, is not paid for his work as a cook. He works more than five days a week, “about nine or 10 hours a day,” he says.
He explains: “They got a little thing they call the ‘Job Board’ here – that assigned me to the kitchen.” If he refuses to take the job, or refuses to show up to shifts, he says, “They’d write you a Disciplinary for ‘Refusal to Work,’” which can result in losing “privileges like visitations, store, phone calls, for 30 days” unless “you are sick. That would be your only real excuse to not get written up.” (He stipulates that it is easier to quit when the kitchen is not “shorthanded,” but it often is shorthanded, and is right now.)
Rose confirms that inmates can be disciplined for not working unless they are ill.
J pauses, then continues. Prison “has really taken a toll on me,” he says, “mentally. Messing with my mind. Mentally.”
He elaborates about the mental toll at work. “Well, the job sucks, man. The only thing I’ve got going on in the kitchen, man, is just being away from these mean guys for a few hours a day, about nine, 10 hours a day. That’s the only thing I like about it. Other than that, it’s just filthy in this kitchen, period.”
In the context of the pandemic, J says inmates have recently gotten masks, “But I think it’s still unsanitary in that kitchen, the way they’re handling stuff in there. You would have to see it for yourself, though.”
In general, J reflects that in the past couple of years, “The prison here at Ventress has gotten really violent. A lot of violence, a lot of chaos, a lot of disrespect. It’s just a torn up prison. Man, a torn down prison.”
He continues, “There’s been a lot of deaths, period, at this prison in the past couple of years. Real violence.” And J has experienced his “fair share of violence” in Ventress firsthand, getting older, “and I still have to go through this bull. Real violence, every day” throughout the prison.
In J’s estimation, there is a “fight” and/or stabbing between inmates, an “assault of an inmate by an officer,” and an “assault of an officer by an inmate,” all “at least” once a day each in Ventress Prison.
“Every day,” he repeats.
J says he has been incarcerated in all but one of Alabama’s prisons during his sentence.
Inmate “B”, also in Ventress, refuses to work in the prison, he says, because “They pay us nothing. It’s not me to work for free. I pass.” B’s interview for this article takes place in late May.
He elaborates, “Some guys work. I do not. If it’s not about my freedom, I won’t do it. My time is spent trying to get free,” adding, “I won’t clean up behind another man for free at all.”
Ventress’ kitchen and cafeteria, B says, are “nasty as Hell in this place. The conditions here are very unfit. There are rats in the kitchen, in the lights, etcetera.” Inmates “don’t get paid to work in the kitchen,” he says, and claims that “all 20 or 21” people working in Ventress’s kitchen on a given day are unpaid prisoners.
“Their outfits are nasty,” B continues, and “the kitchen needs to be fixed, cleaned, redone. It’s outright nasty…It’s all inmates working in the kitchen, and nobody gets paid [except for] a steward who has the keys. The inmates cook and do everything else.”
On a typical day in Ventress, B says, “They serve chow at, like, four or five in the morning, then lunch around 10 or 12, then the last meal is around four or five. I don’t eat in the kitchen at all, for fear of the food not being properly cooked, or being nasty. We’ve got rats coming out of the roof while guys are sitting at tables and eating, rats all in the kitchen. Food’s not good at all.”
B says the food one can buy in the prison’s store as an alternative to the free food served in the chow hall, is “nothing that’s really healthy,” such as “cups of soup, cookies, drinks, water, corn flakes, sandwich food off the shack line.”
B says these alternatives are only healthier in that they are more sanitary and less likely to be rotten.
(An inmate sent a past receipt for a week’s worth of store bought prison food and other basic items, which totaled over $200 for a purchase of 16 products, the highest expense being cigarettes.)
B explained that money in the prison is “placed on your book, then you fill out a slip, then they fill it out. We don’t handle money, and the only way people get stuff is [as] gifts from people in the free world.” In B’s estimation, “The stuff you’re paying little to nothing for in the streets cost double the amount in here.”
B says the hardest burden for him is “having to ask people to send their money to help, because we don’t make money in here.”
B was assigned an unpaid job as the cleaner of his dorm around a year ago. He has refused to carry out that work for almost the entire time the job has been assigned to him.
He did work “a few” shifts early in his time in Ventress. Asked what those shifts were like, B answers, “Nothing, clean-up. That’s it. Nothing major, for real. There’s dudes that clean [the floor] just to get something to smoke, pick up butts, so I don’t have to … They don’t care. They just want shit to smoke.”
The clean-up process differs slightly from routine, however, in the aftermath of an assault or killing. But that job is also performed by unpaid inmate laborers. Killings, stabbings, and other bloody assaults are “cleaned up before the suits get in here, so it’s nothing [to see], is what I mean. An inmate does it asap.”
B explains that cleaning up blood is often designated to inmates assigned various cleaning jobs. “They do it all the time before the folks come in to fuck up the investigation.”
Asked what cleaning supplies are used for this particular process, B answers, “Stuff [unpaid workers] make in the prison.”
B says this cleaning process is a bit more time consuming “after a killing,” but notes that regardless of the incident, “Shit be done so fast that it’s over with. Things go back in place. When guys get stabbed with a knife, there’s always blood.”
He adds that, often, if an inmate is stabbed “15 or 20 times” but lives, “they don’t report those stabbings.”
Asked if unpaid prisoners ever clean up the aftermath of stabbings or killings, Rose confirms, “Inmates assigned to cleaning duties may assist in the cleanup after an altercation occurs.”
The unpaid cleaning work on these crime scenes, B says, “doesn’t take long, because when something happens, once it’s over with, there’s inmates helping each other” clean up the crime scene. “It’s crazy, but we try to stick together,” he explains.
B says that it’s easier for inmates to help each other through the cleaning process of a stabbing/killing than it is for them to protect each other from the incidents in the first place, primarily because the altercations and assaults develop and escalate so fast that “you never know what caused the problem” until too late.
Asked why Alabama prisoners are not compensated for work within the prisons, “Remember,” Rose answers, “inmates remanded to our custody have been convicted of a crime and handed a sentence to serve time as determined by a court. The unfortunate reality is that he or she, as a result of their crime committed and subsequent conviction, loses his or her freedoms.”
Toward the end of the interview with Prisoner B, when asked what it’s like to witness and participate in the clean-up of these bloody incidents, he answers:
“I’ve learned not to have feelings in here. My feelings are out in the free world, in my family.”
Matthew Vernon Whalan’s work has appeared in Alabama Political Reporter, The Brattleboro Reformer, The Berkshire Record, The New York Journal of Books, The Brattleboro Commons, Hard Times Review (Jacksonwhalan.com), Red Crow News, The Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and other news outlets and literary journals.
Wendy Sawyer, “How Much do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?,” Prison Policy Initiative, 4/10/2017
WSFA Staff, “Case of Tuberculosis Confirmed at Ventress Correctional Facility,” WSFA NEWS-12, 2/14/2020
Phil Pinarski, “Scabies Outbreak Reported at William C. Holman Correctional Facility,” CBS-42 Birmingham, 8/13/19
Matthew Vernon Whalan, “Phone Problems, Lack of information on COVID-19 Worry Inmates at Ventress Prison,” Alabama Political Reporter, 6/9/2020