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A group of current and former prisoners have sued the state of Alabama with the support of two unions who have signed on as co-plaintiffs, the Union of Southern Service Workers, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The lawsuit claims that Alabama’s system of prison labor amounts to a “modern-day form of slavery” that generates massive profits for private businesses and revenues for the state by forcing incarcerated people to work for little or no pay. Jacob Morrison and Adam Keller join Rattling the Bars to discuss the lawsuit and the importance of the fight for prisoners’ rights to the overall labor movement.

Jacob Morrison is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees, and the president of the North Alabama Labor Council. Adam Keller is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 900. Together, they host The Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only union radio talk show.

Studio / Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars: A show that amplifies the voices of people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and subjugated while offering solutions. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. Today we are talking about the return of convict leasing in the US, and why the labor movement and the prison abolition movement need to unite to fight the exploitation of slave labor in prison. A group of current and former prisons have sued the state of Alabama and two unions: The Union of Southern Service Workers and The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union have signed on as Plaintiffs. The suit claims the Alabama system of prison labor is a modern-day form of slavery that forces prisoners to work often for little or no money while generating massive profits and revenue for government agencies and private businesses.

I recently spoke with Jacob Morrison and Adam Keller about this issue. Jacob is a member of the American Federation of Government Employees and he is the president of the North Alabama Labor Council. Adam is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 900. Together, they host The Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only union radio talk show. Welcome, Adam Keller and Jacob Morris, to Rattling the Bars.

Recently in the state of Alabama, a lawsuit was filed relative to prison labor, more importantly, to what’s called convict leasing. When you think about a lawsuit… And I came out of this space, I did 48 years, I was real litigious when it came to filing complaints. Normally, you have the plaintiffs and then you have the respondent. In all prison civil litigations that I ever dealt with, the plaintiffs always have the tendency to be people that are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. The unique thing about this, and something I want to make our audience aware of, is in this particular litigation, the plaintiffs consisted of formerly incarcerated, incarcerated, and union representatives among other civic and social groups. Two people who have knowledge of the lawsuit are my guests today. Let’s start with you, Adam. Give us some background on the lawsuit if you can.

Adam Keller:  Sure. Yeah. Thank you for having me. I’m a labor union activist, so that’s the perspective I’m taking into this case. When I first heard about it on the news, I was shocked that convict lease labor, which was supposed to be banned in 1928, was still happening. I knew that there was this exploitation happening in Alabama’s prisons because Alabama’s prison system is unconstitutional. It is currently under litigation with the Department of Justice for being cruel and inhumane. So I knew it was bad.

But you’re exactly right, this lawsuit is interesting because of the combination of forces behind it. We have the Union of Southern Service Workers, which is an SEIU affiliate alongside the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, RWDSU. Listeners may be familiar with them from the famous campaign in Bessemer at the Amazon warehouse. It’s the same union, RWDSU. so they have a vested interest for a few reasons, including the fact that this incarcerated labor is happening at facilities that they’re trying to organize.

So it’s a class action lawsuit and what is happening here is that the Alabama Department of Corrections, the ADOC, are operating what is being alleged to be a convict lease system where they lease out incarcerated workers to public sector employers, private sector employers, and across various industries. This includes fast food franchises, auto supply part manufacturers, a Budweiser distributor, the City of Montgomery, the City of Troy, the Alabama Department of Transportation, and all sorts of industries. What’s happening is that the prisoners are being forced to go to work in these scenarios; It’s not their choice to do so, they’re being coerced through various means which is described in the lawsuit.

When they go to these jobs, they’re being paid less than free-world workers, if they’re being paid the legal minimum wage. Even if they are, the Department of Corrections takes 40% off the top; Before taxes, deductions, child support, and any restitution, they’re taking 40%. Then they’re charging you fees for every essential service that you use, from transportation to the job to laundry for the job, you name it, meals. You’re being charged for everything such that if you work for $7.25 an hour, 40 hours a week as one of these workers, your “take-home pay” at the end of the week is less than $90.

What is also being alleged in this lawsuit – That is an important angle to it – It’s estimated to make $450 million in 2023, and it’s such a money maker that there’s a vested interest in keeping people locked up and participating. So the lawsuit alleges that this contributes to the lack of parole that’s being granted to eligible prisoners in the state of Alabama. There’s been a huge decline in paroles disproportionately affecting Black prisoners because you are twice as likely to be denied parole if you are Black in the last few years. So there’s a racial component through this between the folks being denied parole. You’re also more likely to be Black if you are one of these workers involved in this program, so there are a lot of angles to it. There’s a lot of money being made. If there’s any silver lining, it is the fact that you see civil rights groups, labor unions, and incarcerated folks coming together for this common cause because it is an issue that affects everyone.

Mansa Musa:  That’s where I want to go, and Jacob, talk about that. I want our audience to understand that when we’re talking about this particular litigation as Adam outlined, some of the signatories to it happen to be industries within society. So talk about that connection. If I go to a produce industry and I’m in a union and it is unionized and I’m saying, okay, I want better work conditions, I want better healthcare, and you tell me, listen, this is what we’re going to do; We’re going to say F you and go to one of the 62 or 27 prisons on the state of Alabama and get a lot of labor or cheap or none to nothing.

Talk about that, Jacob. How is this connection between some of the signatures – Mainly the union aspect of it – So people in society can understand that when we’re talking about you’re paying for the prison, your tax dollars are going to be holding that up? But now they are taking jobs; They’re not taking the job because they are saying, well, we’re taking jobs. They’re saying, we got an alternative to your labor, and our alternative to your labor is slave labor.

Jacob Morrison:  Right. Yeah, that’s exactly right. The connection to unionism is pretty intuitively obvious in that if you have a group of free workers who are trying to organize then you have a group of essentially slave laborers. The prison system in Alabama will come back and they’ll say they don’t have to. Nobody is forcing them into this labor program. There are multiple ways that’s not true. The least coercive part of that is that if you don’t go out and take these jobs, you have to stay in the prisons in Alabama. That in and of itself is literally a deadly choice. Alabama’s prison systems are the most dangerous in the entire country as far as I can tell. As Adam said, they have been deemed unconstitutional multiple times. The reporting is that it seems like almost every day there’s a new death in Alabama’s prisons.

In the most minimal way, it’s extremely coercive. You have every incentive in the world to get out of these prisons as much as humanly possible. Then the second that you get into these programs, the lawsuit alleges that when you don’t participate… Even when you are sick and you say, no, I’m sick, I need to stay in my cell, which I don’t want to be in, everybody knows that you don’t want to be there in your cell. But I need to be for my health and also for the public’s help because these prison laborers are being used in industries that you might not immediately think. You think, the automotive industry, that sounds strange, but I guess I can wrap my head around it. When you think prison labor, you think of chain gangs and picking rocks and stuff. They’ve also got people working at Wendy’s. I don’t want sick people handling my food in general.

They’re being punished not just with, you have to stay at the prison, but there are people being punished with solitary confinement, the lawsuit alleges. So that’s extremely coercive. Going back to the union issue – If you’ve got a group of people that are there in such coercive conditions, all of us here recognize that there’s a certain amount of coercion inherent in capitalism, but there are degrees. The degree to which a prisoner is coerced to go take these shifts is much higher than the rest of us. So it’s that much more difficult for them to stand in solidarity with other people who are organizing. I didn’t even realize this, Adam said that it’s downright illegal for prisoners to join the unions in their workplaces where they exist.

This is wrong morally but there’s a huge self-interest for the labor movement to say, look, this system is broken. It’s immoral, it’s not good for us, and it’s not good for the prisoners. There are important things that we can and should be doing to rehabilitate people and give them skills while they’re in prison. To the extent that we have to have them and to what extent that is, we can also talk about that. There should be rehabilitation programs but the way that these are structured is not that. They’re moneymaking schemes for the state and they are undercutting free labor.

One last thing, and I’ll kick it back over to you and Adam, but everybody can see the parallels to the convict lease system that arose immediately after the fall of Reconstruction in the deep South; They called it Redemption. I’ve been reading a book recently about the unionism in the coal mines among Black and white coal miners. It’s so interesting the parallels not only in the dynamics but in how the unions were fighting against convict leasing all the way back then. You had, as far back as the 1870s, Black and white coal miners with first the Greenback Labor Party, then the Knights of Labor, and finally, the United Mine Workers in various forms affiliated and disaffiliated with the national organization, fighting against convict leasing on moral and practical terms on an interracial basis. To see that happening again in almost exactly the same words is there’s a certain inspiration in that working people are… It’s not just that people have had a sudden moral revelation. There are people that have been saying this in Alabama. Alabamians have been saying stuff like this is bad for over 100 years but then there’s also the bleakness of the fact that we have been having to say that for over 100 years.

Mansa Musa:  That’s a good observation. When you look at prison labor and when you look at it from the perspective that you outlined, how I’m using this, I got an alternative to giving people a livable wage, to giving people healthcare, to giving people a safe workplace, I got an alternative there. Well, look at my alternative; My alternative is I can go get some convicts. More importantly, I can go get Black convicts, I can go get Indigenous convicts. I can go get them and tell them that unless they work, they’re going to be in solitary confinement. Now, the alternative to solitary confinement is you work, but where are you going to work? You’re going to work in the coal mine. So then you’re going to work in the coal mine, you’re going to work ungodly hours, and anything you say about the work conditions, I’m going to replace you with somebody else that’s there ’cause I got endless labor.

Now, when it comes down to what you just outlined, Jacob, when it comes to the people in society saying listen, you’re taking my job – Not the prisoner taking my job, but the system, capitalism says you’re taking my job and you’re taking my job because you don’t want to give me a livable wage. Therein, is the sickness of this whole system. Adam, talk about where the state falls on this. I was looking at the background and okay, you got the governor and you got 67 counties in the state of Alabama, so everybody’s getting free prison labor. They’re complicit to it. If it’s an auto industry in whatever part of Alabama and they’re saying, well, we need labor because people are talking about how they want more wages, can you lease us some convicts? Talk about how the role of the state is playing in this oppressive system.

Adam Keller:  Yeah. I appreciate you bringing that up. Governor Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, the head of the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the Alabama Department of Corrections are all named in this lawsuit. They’re all considered complicit in this system through various means: Through the leasing itself but also the systemic denial of paroles, which is feeding labor back into this system. It’s a vicious cycle. People have been reporting for years about the paroles and the lack of paroles and how it’s getting worse and worse each year. Then you find out, well, okay, now we know why it’s getting worse and we know why there’s a denial. I wanted to spotlight one of the examples because there’s this company called SL Alabama. Some folks may remember this because this is the same company that is in the Hyundai supply chain. They were using child migrant labor and including children as young as 13. This very same company is one of the companies in this lawsuit and they were working incarcerated workers 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

This same company feeds into Hyundai. This big auto manufacturer receives subsidies from the state of Alabama, so there’s another way we’re paying for it, right? We’re subsidizing the industries, we’re paying for the prisons. Then we’re seeing our jobs being undercut by the use of incarcerated labor, we’re seeing union organizing being undercut by the use of incarcerated labor, and then the exploitation that these people are facing is cruel. It’s a moral outrage. It’s an economic outrage to see an alliance between the state, these private industries, and the local governments because, from the lawsuit, it looks to me like so many of our cities and counties would struggle to even operate if they were not utilizing this.

You think about how many employees they would hire to fill this gap. You talk about city jobs with benefits, pay that starts at maybe 15 an hour, so it goes up from there, how many more jobs would be in our community if it weren’t for the reliance on these systems? It’s a moral outrage but it’s worth highlighting again, $450 million is how much is alleged to be created in profits last year from the system. The state of Alabama made $1 million off transportation fees of work release folks, $1 million charging people for the van rides to and from the Wendy’s, to and from the SL Alabama, to and from the city of Montgomery, and so it is a giant money maker. It is a perverse way to deal with incarcerated human beings. These are our brothers and sisters.

It’s worth highlighting that Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country which means we lock up more people than almost any other place on planet Earth – Disproportionately, Black folks, because 26% of Alabama’s population is Black and over 50% of ADOC’s population is Black. It’s even more disproportionate when you look at the people in these convict lease scenarios. It’s a racist system, it’s a profit-generating system, and it’s an anti-labor system. That’s why it’s important that all working people… We all know people who are impacted by the criminal justice system, almost all of us do, particularly in Alabama if you’re a working-class person, but we all are impacted as members of the workforce. We are all impacted as taxpayers, frankly. So we all have a vested stake in seeing this cruel system come to an end.

Mansa Musa:  Now, you know what –

Jacob Morrison:  I want to – Go ahead.

Mansa Musa:  – Jacob, before you go there – If you can integrate this into your answer, whatever you want to talk about – I wanted to ask, is Alabama incentivizing corporations that come into the state and use this labor? I know in the District of Columbia, they are throwing money left and right at developers to develop and build, and they selling real estate like it’s ice cream on a hot summer day. But I want to know in y’alls research, have y’all come across that? Go ahead, Jacob. You weigh in on how you feel.

Jacob Morrison:  Has the state of Alabama incentivized these employers to come here? Yes. I don’t know that there’s been any incentives specifically to utilize convict labor. I don’t know about that, but there has definitely been an inordinate amount of money shoveled specifically into the auto industry. The auto industry in Alabama has been in the news a lot lately because of the budding UAW campaigns. Across the state now, Mercedes and Hyundai workers in Alabama have both gone public with their campaigns, and Governor Ivey has been attacking them immediately after their announcements. But in 1993 with the building of the Mercedes plant, that came at the cost of $200 million. That’s right, right, Adam? It was $200 million to get Mercedes here in ’93?

Adam Keller:  I believe so, and it’s been over $1 billion in overall industry subsidies, right?

Jacob Morrison:  Yeah. Recently, the state of Alabama announced another $50 million investment in a training center right next door to us, here in Decatur, to serve the growing auto industry – Toyota Mazda here in Huntsville, specifically. There’s been huge investments in these industries. So like Adam said, we are paying on multiple ends for this exploitation. Adam mentioned SL Alabama, and I wanted to highlight that the working conditions of people at SL Alabama are in part the result of the undermining of solidarity and worker organizing efforts driven by this convict leasing system. SL Alabama in particular, but Alabama’s auto industry as a whole, is extremely unsafe compared to the auto industries in the rest of the country.

Alabama Arise has a new report that’s really good that talks about how Alabama’s auto industry has evolved and devolved in many cases. As it relates to safety, Alabama workers are at least 10% more likely to have an amputation than people in different parts of the country and 70% more likely to have an amputation than auto workers in Michigan. So then if we take a look at SL Alabama in particular, they’re using prison labor and they’re using child labor. During this time, while they’re doing both of these things, putting children at risk – Children shouldn’t be in automotive manufacturing facilities anyway. Those are dangerous jobs, and we understand that, and there’s a certain degree that comes with the job – SL Alabama is above and beyond that by multitudes, as is evidenced by the multiple OSHA fines that have been levied against SL Alabama, and OSHA does not just throw out fines willy-nilly.

You would know if you look through the press releases of OSHA and look at how many people have been fined by OSHA in the last week, month, or year, $50,000 for crush and amputation hazards in one year is what you saw at SL Alabama while they were using prison labor, while they were using 13-year-old children. Those conditions are in part from – There are lots of reasons, no doubt – The undermining of the solidarity that is possible by the use of people who are coerced to the extent that prisoners are. That’s the thing that you get when you go about running your state this way; You get insanely dangerous working conditions, you get low pay, you get bad benefits, and a working class in this state that… It’s worse to be a worker here in Alabama than basically anywhere else in the country when you look at wages, working conditions, and benefits. The prison convict system is just one more reason that is the case.

Mansa Musa:  When we talk about capitalism being evil, this is evil personified. The reason why I asked about the state being incentivized – I’m quite sure that they don’t put in their packet when they try to solicit somebody, a corporation to come there, oh, yeah, we use child labor. We got cheap labor, or, we got endless labor of force. No, they don’t say that but that’s known by the corporation – Is because every corporation, in the US or anywhere in the world, wants cheap labor, they want a lot of it, and they want to work you from sun up to sun down and get as much money out you before you fall out. So that’s the narrative when it comes to capitalism. The exploitation of man against man, that’s the narrative. Marx and Lenin, all of them exemplified that in their writings.

Adam, talk about where we stand at, ’cause I know the suit was filed, and I recall they asked for an injunction. I want you to answer this in the context of if you have any knowledge of the impact this is having on the prison population. I read a lot of the prisoners are fearful of retaliation. At the same token, they don’t have any choice now because the cat’s out of the bag, the suit is out there, but what about the injunction? What kind of coverage are the men and women getting in the system based on this? Because ain’t no doubt in my mind the hornet’s nest has been kicked and they ain’t feeling good about this one here. You’re getting ready to take their big pocketbook.

Adam Keller:  Oh, yeah, yeah, I agree. The hornet’s nest has definitely been kicked. The lawsuit is asking for changes to the parole system immediately for folks to be paroled, they’re asking for back-pay for the workers affected, and they’re asking for an end to the system immediately. My understanding is there is a hearing coming up, I believe next month. Jacob, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong there, but I do believe next month. I’ve noticed a lot of silence from our state government, so that’s interesting. I know that they’re going to say, we don’t want to comment on pending litigation; That’s always the go-to answer, but there has certainly been a lot of silence from Governor Ivey, from the Attorney General’s office, and the Board of Paroles. They don’t want to talk about this at all. I think you’re right – It’s because it’s like the cat’s out of the bag. Now people understand why some of these things have been happening in our system.

We’re connecting the dots now and seeing, okay, you’ve been running this scheme this whole time. You’ve been generating these profits, you have all these people depending on it, and thriving off of it. Well, no wonder people can’t get out. No wonder we can’t get real prison reform in the state of Alabama. No wonder when the federal government says, your prisons are unconstitutional and you need change, our answer is to say, okay, we’ll just build more prisons. That’s what the state government has proposed, which is to build new mega prisons to house even more people as opposed to real criminal justice reform, as opposed to ending the drug war and doing the actions that we need to make communities safer.

Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I’m very curious to know how deep it really is because the lawsuit says over 500 employers have been involved. The lawsuit is just scratching the surface. So that’s something that is going to be interesting to see in the coming months, how much more do we find out? How many more people are involved in this? How much more money is being made off of this? I’m glad, as a labor union activist, that organized labor is taking a stand here and is getting involved. And I want to see more of it because ultimately, that’s the solidarity that we need if we’re going to really thrive as working-class people faced with this sort of system.

Mansa Musa:  Jacob, going forward, what do you want the takeaway to be for our audience? I was telling Adam this earlier, off-camera, I wanted to get in this space for a long time. I’m constantly trying to make the connection between the prison-industrial complex, how it impacts society overall, and why society should have an invested interest in it. Going forward, what do you want our audience to have as a takeaway? And how they can get in touch with you and Adam?

Jacob Morrison:  Yeah. The takeaway, with this case in particular, is to stay tuned and we’ll see what happens. Hopefully, there will be some justice here in this case. But more broadly, the answer is – And this answer is going to be similar across the country – That mass incarceration is not working for working people. If you take a look at people who are in prisons, it is not the bosses; It is people who have been down on their luck for one reason or another and made mistakes, sometimes very bad and gross mistakes, but that by and large, can be rehabilitated and will be back in society at some point.

That’s a thing that the opponents on this issue don’t seem to want to reckon with, is that 95% of people in our prisons today are going to be back out on the streets. So the question is not, are these people going to be back out on the streets? The question is, in what state are we going to return them when we release them, and are we going to continue doing this? The state that we return people to society now is in a worse state than they came in. A question going forward is, how many more people are we going to subject to this system that you said, Mansa, is anti-human? To some of the opponents on this issue, some language that may hit them harder is anti-American. Continually anti-American.

Who believes that our system of incarceration is just? What you have to believe about the American people is that the American people are so rabid and immoral and wicked and vile, uniquely so, compared to every single other population of human beings in the country, that we have to cage more people than anywhere else for our own good because if we don’t cage all of these people, then we won’t be able to have a functioning society. That’s what you have to believe about the American people: that we are uniquely evil and wicked and incapable of handling freedom to believe that this is a just system. So when you put it to people that way, I hope – And I’ve seen it in some cases – That it’ll get their gears turning. On its face it’s such an inhumane, unjust system that we have to upend it for the betterment of our society, of the working class, for our country, and for the world.

It’s not a good system for anybody except the people at the top. I mentioned that working people are the ones who fill our prisons. One of the stark reminders of that is when you take a look at OSHA’s press releases; If you go through there every single week just about, you’re going to find OSHA fining some employer because they were found responsible for their employee’s death. We just saw OSHA come out with the results of their investigation for the 16-year-old who was killed in a Mississippi poultry plant. $200,000 is the fine that this multi-$100 million organization is going to have to pay for killing a child. Nobody’s going to prison, nobody is having any amount of freedom taken away, and nobody is even having a significant monetary penalty placed on them. It’s a slap on the wrist at best, while people that child was working alongside are going to prison for much less. It’s fundamentally unjust.

Mansa Musa:  But that’s a good observation and a good articulation of what we know to be the reality. Adam, speak to the broader issue. Speak to the labor unions. Tell the labor unions nationwide and worldwide why they need to be cognizant of this. I think it was Marx or Lenin who that said, workers of the world unite. Well, they didn’t say workers in society unite, and workers in slave labor, you ain’t considered work. As we close out, talk to the labor union in a broader aspect of why it’s important that they understand this particular contradiction.

Adam Keller:  Right. Right. Our labor movement in this country, for all of its flaws and warts over the years, has historically fought for an end to convict lease labor. It has fought for an end to child labor and it’s fought against these forms of super exploitation. So it’s our historical mission, that’s our calling, is to fight against exploitation and oppression wherever it may lay. Workers of all kinds rely on solidarity to survive. And we have a responsibility as labor unions with resources, members, with reach to do what we can to fight for justice, and to fight for what is right. The right thing to do is to oppose the system, but there is a practical concern because it undercuts the wages of our members. It brings in workers who are literally ineligible.

According to the rules of the Alabama Department of Corrections, they cannot join RWDSU. They cannot join the Union of Southern Service Workers. These are unions that are organizing in places like Wendy’s, places like poultry plants where this source exploitation is taking place. So there are practical concerns and there are moral concerns here. Our labor movement, if we’re serious about representing working people, if we’re serious about bringing about the kind of country we need for working people to thrive, we can’t sit back and let something like this happen. We can’t allow the state government to collude with local governments and with private employers to extract so much from people. To do so in such a cruel manner with such force, it’s not acceptable. Not acceptable. In the year 2024, it is not acceptable.

Mansa Musa:  I agree. I agree.

Adam Keller:  So I applaud RWDSU. I applaud the Union of Southern Service Workers. I do see more labor unions getting involved and getting engaged in this. We all have a role to play in this fight. The more of us that speak up and the more our unions speak up, the louder we’re going to be.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. Thank you. Thank both of y’all for joining me today on Rattling the Bars. Y’all definitely rattled the bars today, and y’all rattled it in such a manner that we ask our audience to really look at this issue right here. This is not about Alabama. This is not about the Alabama prison system. This is not about the Alabama Unions – This is about humanity. As Jacob outlined, we have to be some demented, twisted individuals to say that the citizens of the US, the American people, would allow our country to go get kids, put them in places where they’re subject to be mutilated by machinery, get prison labor, and that at the end of the day, you’re denying people parole premeditatedly because you want to hold on to the labor. So we thank y’all for coming and rattling the bars today. We ask that our audience continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars, ’cause guess what? We are really the news. Thank you.

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Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.