Left Coast Right Watch
Back to Articles


March 29, 2024 by CARTER HUESTIS

LCRW is 100% reader-funded!

Support LCRW

The past 4 months have seen an explosion of energy coming out of Alabama from incarcerated organizers. The State of Alabama is facing a slew of court cases, from a lawsuit surrounding a guard allegedly putting out a hit on a incarcerated organizer, and a separate lawsuit following the alleged harvesting of incarcerated peoples’ organs by prison guards. The State is also facing international outrage following a botched nitrogen gas execution. All of this led incarcerated people themselves to organize shutdowns on February 6th. LCRW interviewed sources close to the Free Alabama Movement who are familiar with the situation for imprisoned organizers.


On January 24th, 2024, Kenneth Smith was executed by suffocation with nitrogen gas. The Associated Press reports,

The execution took about 22 minutes from the time between the opening and closing of the curtains to the viewing room. Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints. That was followed by several minutes of heavy breathing, until breathing was no longer perceptible.

and that

Smith’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeff Hood, said the execution did not match the state attorney general’s prediction in court filings that Smith would lose consciousness in seconds followed by death within minutes.

Civil society organizations around the world, from a Vatican-affiliated charity, to exonerated death row inmates, and even members of the Supreme Court, have all condemned the execution. 

On November 9th 2023, Robert Earl Council, a co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement was beaten and dragged from his cell at St. Clair Correctional. A video released by fellow FAM activists starts roughly five feet outside of his cell, showing a pool of blood on the concrete floor. The FAM activist states that prison guards had been macing anyone who stood too close to the door. Soon after, the unnamed activist goes into Mr. Council’s cell which reveals a pool of blood at the head of Mr. Council’s bed. In addition to this pool is also what appears to be a trail of blood leading towards the cell door, indicating that Mr. Council was dragged on the floor out of his cell. The video ends with the unnamed videographer leaving the cell and showing a third trail of blood leading further away from the door, indicating that the correctional officers did not stop dragging Mr. Council once he had been removed from his cell. Beatings are just one method of violence recorded inside the Alabama Prison system, with instances ranging from alleged organ harvesting to the constant use of slave labor.


The Free Alabama Movement launched it’s first prison shutdown campaign in 2014. The core group of organizers were two men by the names of Melvin Ray, now known as Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun and Robert Earl Council, now known as Kinetik Justice Amun. They were under the mentorship of a veteran Black Panther named Richard Mafundi Lake. Lake was also a member of Inmates For Action, a militant collective founded in 1972 to organize incarcerated individuals, as well as the African Peoples Survival Committee & Afrikan National Prison Organization (ANPO). What had initially sparked the interest of the two organizers, Bennu and Kinetik, were the 2010 prison shutdowns in Georgia. Where previously inmates had understood that prison shutdowns were used for fairly “mundane” issues, like reversing a pause on visitations or poor living conditions, the 2010 shutdown set a new precedent. Beyond its more explicitly political character it was also said to have been the biggest prison strike in US history to that date, with the record only being broken in 2016 by the Free Alabama Movement’s shutdown that included upwards of 57 thousand incarcerated people.   

 Unlike previous shutdowns, which were over quality of life issues, the 2010 Georgia shutdowns were political—their organizers wanted legal change. The main difference between earlier prison shutdowns and the one in 2010, a source close to FAM told LCRW, is that the smaller size of cameras, phones, and camcorders, allowed inmates themselves to document conditions themselves. Where previously inmates were dependent on news crews, like at Attica, they were not able to crecord film or photograph prison conditions. On December 31st 2013, FAM launched a Youtube channel where they have uploaded testimonials, recordings from solidarity protests, as well as live readings of their theoretical works. The development of communication networks between prisons was also accelerated, and so inter-prison shutdowns could occur with a level of coordination that the various Departments of Correction could not squash. Put together this meant that both those on the outside were more aware of the conditions that incarcerated people are currently subjected to, and at the same time the incarcerated people could communicate between prisons in a more covert and clandestine manner. 

2010 and onward saw more favorable conditions for prison organizing. This wasn’t just because of newly accessible technology—it was because prisons themselves are under strain. The median annual income for a prison guard is $47 thousand, with Alabama averaging $39 thousand, and there is a national under-staffing crisis. All of these factors mean departments of corrections across the U.S. failed to keep up with the rapidly expanding organizing movement around prisons.

Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun and Kinetik Energy decided to begin collaborating towards something bigger. While reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” Bennu, as he explained in an interview with the SF Bay View, came across a line that he has paraphrased in prior interviews as, “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,”  Bennu said in an interview with San Franciso Bay View. After crystalizing the core cadre of the group as Bennu, Kinetik and a third man named James Pleasant, FAM began clandestinely organizing in 2013. In January of 2014 they were able to launch their first shutdown at St. Clair and Holman correctional facilities after roughly a year of preparation.

When the initial shutdown began, it was able to involve roughly 2.5 thousand incarcerated people. During this shutdown, FAM published a bill titled “ALABAMA’S EDUCATION, REHABILITATION, AND RE-ENTRY PREPAREDNESS BILL” or more simply “The Freedom Bill.” The bill’s demands included free media access and better family visitation rights, but also wanted an overhaul of the Alabama Department of Correction’s education and rehabilitation programs. After the January shutdown, they launched another in April that year. While the initial strike was only aimed at St. Clair and Holman, the April shutdown was aimed at a statewide shutdown

Following these two shutdowns FAM went relatively quiet. It broke this silence in 2015 with a document titled “Let the Crops Rot In The Fields.” The article estimates ​​​​​​​that roughly 500 billlion dollars are directly earned from the exploitation of prison labor. Alone, this is 2% of the American GDP. With this in mind, the authors advocate for a replication of the tactics that slaves would use against their master during harvesting season, 

The harvest of the planter season was reaped when the crops were picked from the field and sold on the open market. When the slave master had invested all that he owned into his next crop (prison factories), the slaves would wait until just before the harvest and rebel against the slave system by ‘going on strike’ and causing the crops to rot in the field. This tactic would completely ruin the slave master’s investment

According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, the defense industry is reliant on UNICOR, a subsidiary of the Bureau of Prisons, to produce electronics for jets and helicopters, radios, land mine sweepers and more. These operations are spread out across 110 factories in 79 separate federal penitentiaries. Beyond the defense industry, agriculture is becoming increasingly reliant on prison labor. The Counter found that between 2017 and 2020 40 million worth of agricultural products made by prison labor in 650 facilities was distributed around the country. This is likely an underestimate, because of the nature of prison labor being so difficult to track within supply chains. There is a very real sentiment in FAM’s position paper that every industry in the United States has become so reliant on prison labor that incarcerated people can now flex their muscles and make serious demands. ​​​​    

This sentiment was realized on September 9th of 2016. Inquest reports that roughly 57 thousand incarcerated people participated in the shutdown across the nation. If true then this was the largest prison shutdown in United States history. There was even, reportedly, a solidarity strike by prison guards at the Holman correctional facility. According to AL.com, 9 prison guards refused to show up for work on the 24th of September. The breadth and depth of this strike seems to have set a precedent. As around this time organizations in Ohio, Virginia and Mississippi sprung up with the the title Ohio/Mississippi/Virginia Freedom Movement respectively. 

    Another strike across the US that spilled into Nova Scotia happened between August 21st and September 9th, 2018. It coincided with the anniversary of George Jackson’s alleged murder. George Jackson was a leading political theorist for the Black Panthers. State prison authorities claim Jackson died in an escape attempt, but his supporters believe his death was a murder.

For FAM, 2016’s shutdowns highlighted the fact that many people, such as those in solitary confinement, can’t or don’t work in prison. According to Inquest, this lead FAM to focus on a new concept for the 2018 protest. According to FAM the tactics in the “Redistibute the Pain” campaign were “a nationwide bi-monthly boycott of canteen, collect phone calls, visitation vending machines, and incentive packages.” During this campaign, prison shutdowns reportedly spread all the way to Nova Scotia. After the round of shutdowns in 2018 there was a considerable backlash against many of the top organizers. The majority of them were subjected to solitary confinement. 

Between 2018 and 2022 there is a serious dip in coverage of prison activism. Both self-reported shutdowns and media coverage of FAM seriously died down. There were intermittent, and smaller, shutdowns in 2020 and 2021, but nothing nearly as big as was previously going on. Labor Notes reporting on a strike in October of 21′ said, 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, ADOC’s strikebreaking tactics are extreme. For instance, where the hedge funds that own Warrior Met Coal have made clear they intend to metaphorically “starve out” the miners in Brookwood, ADOC is employing actual starvation. In addition to adopting a so-called “holiday meal schedule” of only two meals at facilities all around the state, prisoners say those meals are made up of trays containing no hot food and limited nutrients. Numerous images of items such as two “sandwiches” constructed from only cold slices of bread and cheese have made the rounds on social media.

Besides this there does not seem to be much in the way of prison shutdowns. However, this does not mean that FAM had become less active. Their Twitter account during this period continued to expose the ways that inmates were living. 

Communications like this were the bulk of FAM’s online presence during the years leading up to 2022. They show a sort of tactical retreat into smaller scale fights than what was being done in years previous. Instead of coordinating national prison shutdowns, the calls were in response to repression that the police had initiated, reporting death counts of incarcerated people and the above-mentioned exposures of everyday life.

Both FAM and Harvard Law Review offered analyses of the efficacy of FAM’s tactics. FAM’s view is long-term. According to their “Some of Our Accomplishments” document, they see the majority of their successes as network-building with other organizations and incarcerated people in general. They claimed they’ve collaborated with over 40 organizations since 2014. 

A Harvard Law Review article about the efficacy of prison shutdowns came to the following conclusion

…while strikes have rarely brought about immediate changes, they have helped initiate longer-term prison reforms and have periodically been successful in drawing attention to the otherwise unnoticed plight of those behind bars.

They added:

While largely unsuccessful in effectuating major changes to the American prison system, the 2016 prison strike and the prison strikes of the past decade have raised the salience of prisoner collective action efforts on the national level.

It should be noted that the Harvard Law Review is using a different metric than FAM itself does. While the Law Review frames prison shutdowns’ success largely by how actions affect laws and government policy, FAM goes beyond this and measures their success by how well they’re able to network, build relationships, and carry out actions—essentially, their political power.

In 2022 there was a call to, “#ShutDownADOC2022.” According to a report that Vice Published to TikTok, 10 thousand incarcerated people across 12 prisons in Alabama participated in the September 26 prison shutdown. 

Governor Kay Ivey’s office stated

Governor Ivey is, first and foremost, committed to ensuring public safety, plain and simple. These “demands” – as the protestors refer to them – are unreasonable and would flat out not be welcomed in Alabama.

FAM responded with their own statement,

Why did Governor Kay Ivey respond to demands from people she usually ignores?

Because when 15,000+ people unite for a political purpose…we can’t be ignored… They have ignored us in the past because we are poor, unorganized on a large scale, many of us can’t vote, and we come from a black hole prison system where we are labeled the worst society has to offer. Yet, we organized a formidable 15,000+ strong army, with over 5,000 more at honor camps and work releases still to join in…

The prison strike escalated when an incarcerated person was recorded with a gun and bullet proof vest, in a video that was posted to FAM’s twitter. There is not much context surrounding the action. There does not seem to be much in regards to legislative or court changes within the prison situation following this shutdown. 2023 saw no major shutdown actions, but by 2024 tensions and conditions had once again escalated in prisons.


On February 6th two things happened. First, the Alabama State Legislature returned from their holiday break. Second, the Free Alabama Movement began a series of prison shutdowns aimed at building the capacity to hold prisons on lock down for 90 days at a time. These prison shutdowns are centered around actions at St. Clair and were initiated with the advent of a new tactic. Solidarity Protesters outside the prison are being coordinated by a committee of organizations led by the Tennessee Student Solidarity Network. The goal of these solidarity protests is to put pressure on the prison authorities, raise morale of the incarcerated people inside while they are shutting it down, and bring in outside media coverage. In late February, after this initial protest, LCRW interviewed a source close to FAM. They gave details around the ongoing shtudown at St. Clair, their current demands, and what they want from individuals who might consider themselves supporters. We have condensed and paraphrased parts of the interview for clarity.

LCRW: FAM uploaded a video to youtube of the aftermath of Robert Earl Council’s arrest. Could you go into what happened that night specifically?

SOURCE: Yeah, there had been a situation. There was a guy named Iphrium Moore, and he was into it with the police officers. In some kinda way I think he may have hit one of them or something. He was having a mental health crisis, and they came in with force, there was a pick axe or axe handle involved and I think he ended up getting hit with the axe handle on the head. Like they literally almost killed him. So Robert Earl was saying, “Why don’t y’all stop. That’s enough. That’s enough.” and so the officers saw him and were like, “That’s him, there you go, right there.” So by that time he had retreated and went back into his cell, and they came in and the blood you saw is from when they tried to beat him to death. 

LCRW: If I’m correct, Robert Earl Council is the same person in January of this year, it came out that an officer had put a hit out on him through the Crips?

SOURCE: Right. Right. 

LCRW: Why did FAM choose February to initiate this round of prison shutdowns?

SOURCE: That was the date the legislative session started. February 6th. Everything that they’re requesting requires legislative action.

The source went on to say that the money they want comes out of the budget and general fund for the state. Previous shutdowns, the source said, were organized without paying attention to when the legislation was in or out of session. FAM organizers, according to the source, believe that despite their previous successes, without proper timing—and support from outside solidarity groups—FAM’s demands won’t be met.They said that organizers lacked “buy-in” from a “core group” of prison populations during this round of prison shutdowns. The source later clarified that the latest round of shutdowns had been consolidated to the prisons where FAM already has an entrenched network. They went on to say that outside of those prisons the group’s focus now is on educating and networking for whatever comes next.

LCRW: How severe would you consider the repression against FAM?

SOURCEEvery move. Every move. 

The source said that guards put FAM organizers “right where [there are] monitors and cameras.”

“People around them are going to be watching,” they said. “They’re going to be harassing them about their religion, about trade school and medical appointments, with lawyers appointments.”

The source said that for incarcerated organizers, “if you see that blue uniform then it’s not gonna go smooth. They’re gonna be ready for some kinda agitation or provocation.”

LCRWHow common is, would you say, wardens or guards putting hits out on prisoners trying to do organizing? 

SOURCE: Every time. It happens every time because you know, they build these relationships with these people that engage in all of the corruption. When something like that occurs it interferes with all of that.

The source said that the last time a hit was put out on an incarcerated organizer, FAM claims they got surveillance footage of the would-be assassin with the warden. They said when word got out of it, there was nearly a riot.

SOURCE: The guards always provoke violence because they recruit guys by saying, “Hey we’ll let you keep your dope. We’ll let you keep your phone.” So that’s how it happens. Every time.

The organization’s F.A.M. Pamphlet: Who We Are” reads: 

“FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT has chosen the Non-Violent and Peaceful Protest strategy of “shutdowns” / work stoppages to combat the multi-billion dollar Prison Industrialized Complex that has incarcerated over 2 million people for the sole purpose of exploitation through free labor, private prisons, exorbitant fees, and more.”

LCRW asked the source what nonviolence means to FAM organizers in a prison environment, where everything is so efficiently violent against incarcerated people.

SOURCE: When a person wakes up and says “Man I’m not going to work.” or when a person starts a canteen boycott, that’s a nonviolent act.

The source clarified that nonviolence as a tactic doesn’t mean the group are strict pacifists, however. FAM organizers, the source said, aren’t replicating the Civil Rights era’s tactics. As they put it, there’s no “they bust your head and you sit down and pray.” Essentially, they said, they don’t want inmates to attack guards but don’t discourage necessary self-defense.

“Non-violence simply means that the first step that they’re taking is a non-violent act. If it escalates that’s not because of anything [incarcerated people] doing because [incarcerated people are] telegraphing what they’re doing. Everybody knows what they’re doing. They’re not going to work these jobs,” the source said.

LCRW:  Is there anything that those outside the prisons can do to involve themselves? 

SOURCE: The most important thing is that most people are not associated and don’t have relationships with those in prison. Prison reformers, abolitionists, whatever, they don’t know anybody in prison. They’re not coming to the prisons. They’re not coming inside the prisons. They hardly take phone calls. So it’s impossible for them to have any legitimacy without having a relationship with the people on the inside. 

One of the most important things, the source said, was for people to literally show up outside of prisons and demonstrate in solidarity. They said it boosts morale, makes incarcerated people less isolated and leads to more connections and communications and therefore better coordination.

LCRW asked what would change in the American legal system if all of FAM’s demands got met. The source told us that one of the major changes would be that inmates get a clear and consistent timetable for when they’ll have served their sentences. There would be clear goals to meet to make sure an inmate gets out on time—a “roadmap for people to understand what it would take.” On top of that, they want prisons to deliver on their claim to rehabilitate people—giving the chance at education and therapy, for example. Essentially, they wait a fair, legitimate system.

“If, for example, I’ve been in prison 20, 30, 40, 50, years then legitimacy looks like knowing when I can go home to my family. Right now there’s people waking up all around the United States and they don’t know the answer to that,” the source said.

Elaborating on this further, the source said they’d like incarcerated people to have opportunities to go back to their communities and serve them instead of working for companies with contracts with the prisons.

“The system we have now doesn’t allow any of that. All prison jobs are for the people they’re in contracts with so the prisons can make money. None of this is supposed to help inmates re-enter society. A lot of people when they went to prison, the old folks are glad they’re gone, and people have to go back and atone for that, but the system isn’t giving them the opportunity for atonement,” the source said. 

“That’s what FAM’s program looks like. That’s why FAM exists—they took those programs away.”

Featured Articles

To top