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Prisoners are suing Alabama over forced labor, calling it a 'form of slavery'

Women at the Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, Ala., walk through the halls. This week, current and former prisoners announced a lawsuit challenging Alabama's prison labor program as a type of modern slavery.
Dave Martin
Women at the Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, Ala., walk through the halls. This week, current and former prisoners announced a lawsuit challenging Alabama's prison labor program as a type of modern slavery.

A group of current and former Alabama prisoners are alleging that the state's prison labor practices amount to a "modern-day form of slavery," according to a complaint filed in federal court this week.

The plaintiffs include 10 men and women who worked during their time in Alabama's prisons and say they were trapped in a system in which "incarcerated people are forced to work, often for little or no money, for the benefit of the numerous government entities and private businesses." Those 10 people are all Black – a fact they emphasize underscores the disproportionate number of Black people held in the state's prisons.

Their lawsuit also alleges that the conditions in the state's prison system itself are inhumane and render any work there inherently coercive. In 2020, the Department of Justice sued the state for failing to provide prisoners with safe and sanitary conditions.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall are among the public officials being sued, along with leaders from the state's department of corrections and transportation, and its Board of Pardons and Paroles. Several private employers named in the lawsuit are the franchisees of well-known companies: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, where prisoners have worked as part of a work-release program.

Most of those defendants could not immediately be reached for comment. The Alabama Department of Corrections told NPR it cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

"The governor, the attorney general, the parole board, the private employers, the public employers are all participating in this enterprise that is intended to result in economic benefit for all of them," said B.J. Chisholm, one of the lead attorneys representing the plaintiffs. In 2023 alone, the economic benefit of prison labor in Alabama was more than $450 million, according to the lawsuit.

In all, more than two dozen defendants are accused, among other things, of violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law which bans coerced labor, and Alabama's state constitution, which was amended last November to ban all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude.

As NPR reported last month, that amendment to the state's constitution is part of a larger movement to end forced labor in prisons. In the past five years, seven states have changed their laws to get rid of what is referred to as the "exception clause." Many state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution ban slavery and involuntary servitude – except as punishment for a crime. Advocates of prisoner rights say that language opens the door for forced labor in prisons.

Prisoners in Colorado, the first state to amend its constitution, have filed a similar lawsuit, saying the state is forcing people in prison to work despite the change in law. Chisholm says lawyers working on the Alabama case have been closely following the case in Colorado.

"Alabama is an extreme case where there are so many, both private and public employers, that are participating in this scheme that it stands out," Chisholm says. "But hopefully this lawsuit will be a warning to other states about the violations of federal law that they would be incurring if they expand it in the way that Alabama has."

The Alabama prisoners – joined by three labor unions and a nonprofit that monitors prison conditions in the state – allege that if they refuse to work, they risk punishment, including solitary confinement, food deprivation, physical punishment, and the loss of "good time" credits that can reduce a person's time in prison.

Lakiera Walker, a plaintiff who was in various state prisons from 2007 until earlier this year, says she faced sexual harassment doing roadwork, and was disciplined when she refused to work because of it.

"I'm out, but my heart is still there with my friends and family who have to suffer that," Walker said in a recorded statement. "They can say, 'Oh it's not like that, and oh, we don't force labor, and oh, it's OK.' But you have so many women on the inside now that are afraid to speak out."

Robert Earl Council is in prison at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Ala. He is one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement. In the lawsuit, he says he faced beatings, death threats and psychological abuse from guards for advocating that people in prison refuse to work.

"Alabama seems to be addicted to cheap labor," Council said in a recorded statement. "Those who partake in the slave process with Alabama are just as guilty as they are, each corporation, each fast food company."

The lawsuit filed this week also alleges that even though some prisoners are deemed safe to work in the community, they are still denied parole "at unjustifiably high rates," with Black people being denied far more often than white people.

The cheap, forced labor creates an incentive to keep these people in prison, the lawsuit alleges. As a result, it states, the current system essentially resurrects the "convict leasing" system of the post-Civil War era.

Labor and incarceration have long been intertwined, says Andrea Armstrong, a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans.

"There was this idea that people should have to pay for their own incarceration, and that is unlike most other government services that we offer," Armstrong says.

Cheap prison labor masks the true cost of incarceration, because otherwise prisons would be paying a free person at least minimum wage to do the same work, she says.

And there are other, intangible costs that she says come in different forms: in keeping people isolated behind bars and away from their communities.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.