Holman Prison in Alabama is home to death row and many there have little to lose should something go wrong. Given the degrading conditions of prisons and their lack of security for prisoners, it should come as no surprise that riots took place on March 11th and 14th.
The first riot happened when a prison guard was stabbed during a fight between two inmates. A prison fire was subsequently started by inmates so they could get access to another part of the prison. The riot included 100 inmates and went from Friday night into Saturday morning before control was re-established and the prison put on lockdown.
An inmate who was interviewed by WHNT 19 News over the phone explained, “What [the officer] did was not professional. They teach them not to do what he did. He went in swinging his stick and throwing inmates around. You know, if you try being in prison for 20 years, people get tired of seeing their fellow convicts get treated that way.”
On Monday while Holman was still on lockdown, an estimated 70 inmates barricaded themselves in a dormitory room after the stabbing of another inmate. WKRG News was able to get a phone call with an inmate there who “said inmates are fed up with deteriorating conditions and overcrowding within the prison system, something even Governor Robert Bentley has acknowledged is a serious issue in Alabama.”
Bentley and others agree that the riots are symptomatic of a system that isn’t working. But instead of trying to reduce sentences, challenge discriminatory practices or expand alternatives we’re given the choice to expand prisons.
Then again it shouldn’t be surprising that the response from the people in power to necessary and radical action on the part of inmates is milquetoast at best. Yes, the riots were necessary, despite perhaps being inadvisable. Prison riots are acts of desperation that will more naturally occur under such brutal and repressive systems. There’s no need for moral condemnation of the inmates; desperate people act desperately in an attempt to become empowered.
The proposed expansion of prisons from Bentley includes, “merg[ing] the state’s maximum security prisons — about 14 in all — into six prisons, four of them new.” But suspiciously Bentley has also pushed for a one-time exemption for letting a single company build these new prisons. The inevitability of sweetheart deals is much too great to be surmounted by well-meaning liberals.
Governor Bentley thinks focusing on older prisons and merging some will help save money. As true as this may be it still won’t bring back all of the casualties that the Alabama system has caused.
One casualty was death row inmate Timothy Jason Jones. Jones committed suicide in 2006 before he could be sentenced to death for a murder conviction. Jones was a drug user, aggressive, and shied away from his responsibilities by fleeing the scene.
But instead of trying to understand him, prosecutors called him a “monster” and confined him in a locked cell where he eventually killed himself. My point isn’t that Jones was a good person but that instead of giving him the chance to prove he could’ve been the state decided he’d be better off rotting in a cell.
There are are other ways to deal with justice.
Organizations like Common Justice and Community Works West both specialize in alternative forms of justice and specifically transformative and restorative justice. These organizations help inmates feel they can still successfully contribute meaningful things for themselves and their communities. They involve prisoners in their local communities and try to encourage meditation as ways to address underlying issues of crime. As organizations they may not deal with death row inmates specifically but their promise is great.
The success of these models helps release pressure from the overcrowded and bloated prison systems that the inmates expressly used as one of their underlying motivators. If we can help build alternatives to prisons that use positive collaboration instead of fear and dread, perhaps we can begin to more meaningfully address overcrowding.
Instead of expanding prisons, let’s work to expand alternatives.