In August of 2013, a young man named Melvin Ray, incarcerated in Alabama's St. Clair Correctional Facility, began developing and sharing a philosophy and plan for resistance to mass incarceration from within the confines of the prison itself. He penned what some might characterize as a manifesto for what would become the Free Alabama Movement. Incarcerated individuals who joined this movement since January of 2014 have used several tactics of resistance, including filming the conditions of these facilities with cellphones and posting the videos to YouTube.
The use of cell phones as a subversive tool spurred a media campaign by the Alabama Department of Corrections emphasizing the “danger” of cellphones in the hands of prisoners. It was claimed that it might lead to “overseeing drug deals or calling for a hit.” It is incredibly suspicious how the ADOC's media campaign did not begin with some notable criminal act organized from within prison walls, yet it conveniently coincided with the release of videos and photos damaging to the reputation of the state agency, just as an investigation for abuses in another facility within the state by the US Department of Justice was drawing to a conclusion.
All of this withstanding, the tactic that Free Alabama Movement has emphasized most in their struggle is the stoppage of labor, strikes within the prisons. Melvin and the others have consistently decried free labor as the main reason for the persistence of mass incarceration in the US, placing their exploitation in the general context of the struggle against capitalism.
I decided to ask Melvin a few questions that I felt were relevant to the general anti-capitalist and black liberation movements, that he might assist those of us in the “free world” in understanding the underlying thought behind Free Alabama Movement's actions, development, and its relationship to those on the outside. Although I had originally intended to write a mere paragraph-style article with quotes from the interview interspersed, both the dynamism and cogency of his responses persuaded me to instead offer the readers more of his unclad words:
Dan Brent: Do you think there is a connection between poverty wages within oppressed communities and free labor in the so-called "justice" system?
Melvin Ray: Poverty wages are part of the social/economic/political control mechanism of capitalism, and it is very much related to forced prison slavery/free labor. With limited resources due to low wages, you are restricted in many ways, including where your family can afford to live, what they can afford to buy (quality of life), and the most important control is their access to education. When your income only allows you to live in a poor community, then you typically only have access to under-performing schools, due to a lack of investment from the state and local government. When confined by wages, the people of these poor communities are then closer in proximity to crime and criminal influences, which are directly related to incarceration, where forced slave labor is introduced. Consequentially, most people who are incarcerated also come from the poor communities where wages are depressed. The cycle then repeats itself because slave labor is forced on the social and politically impoverished, because we lack traditional economics (no income) and political power due to disenfranchisement.
Dan Brent: How would you describe the connection between white supremacy on the streets with police violence and white supremacy in the context of mass incarceration?
Melvin Ray: The fabric of white supremacy stretches across all threads of America because it is of a cultural and psychological nature, as described by Marimba Ani in her groundbreaking book, "Yurugu." In order to erect the concept of white supremacy, there has to be a foundation for it to stand on, and that foundation has always been black people. So with a psychology and culture built upon an identity that must destroy the black image and all things blacks, it's easy to see the connection between police brutality, mass incarceration, and a host of other elements (poverty, low wages, lack of investment opportunities, discrimination in housing and college admittance, and on and on).
The same mindset that allows a police officer to summarily execute an innocent, unarmed black person in the street, is the same mindset that allows an officer to plant evidence, to lie on the witness stand, and for a white juror to find guilt. It allows a judge to appoint a knowingly incompetent defense attorney, and it allows a prosecutor to withhold evidence, use false evidence, to over charge, and to discriminate against black jurors, all with impunity. The Dred Scott case captured it best when the U.S. Supreme Court said that "no black man has any rights that a white man is bound to respect." That applies whether it is an innocent black man or woman like Sean Bellor, Renisha McBride, Mumia Abu Jamal, Mafundi Lake, Move 9, on up to the Scott sisters, Mike Brown and Ezell Ford.
Under the dictates of white supremacy, if you are black, then you can be murdered or raped in society with little consequence, or you can be subject to murder or rape in prison with the other weapons of mass murder and destruction like the death penalty, life without parole, malnutrition, substandard healthcare, on down to police brutality, forced free labor, long-term solitary isolation and sensory deprivation, and exposure to wide spread disease, all subsumed in mass incarceration.
Under white supremacy, this is the lot for black people so that white people can validate their supremacy. In a “democracy” where the resources are controlled by a few and political will is enforced by the vote of white-majority politics, white supremacy will reign for a while longer.
Dan Brent: What role do you think capitalism plays in the mass incarceration of people of color within US society?
Melvin Ray: Capitalists seek the highest return on their investment, and the best way to increase returns is to find ways to reduce the cost of production. The cheaper the cost to produce, the greater the return. One production cost that any corporation would like to reduce is labor costs. Why? Because labor costs (paying employees salaries and raises, sick leave and maternity leave, vacation time, payroll and income tax, social security, 401Ks, and compliance with labor laws) is the greatest expense to a business. Corporations have found that the best way to reduce these labor costs is to use free prison labor because when the capitalist uses a prisoner/slave, he doesn't have any such expenses. He can replace all of these expenses with a campaign contribution to the politicians who can guarantee that he has access to prison labor.
It's all a matter of bottom line profits. The capitalist doesn't care where it comes from, and when you have power brokers who deem a certain segment of its society ideally suited for that purpose (black, poor, uneducated, no political power), then they pass legislation like the "war on drugs" to create a system of mass incarceration/prison workforce slavery. Global competition within capitalism from producers like China made the decision to mass incarcerate large swaths of young black men for the purpose of exploiting them for prison/slave labor quite easy.
After the laws are passed, the next step is to get the media involved to play their role of demonizing and assassinating the character of black men so thoroughly in movies, TV, radio, and on the evening news, ("crack babies", "drug predators", "violent gangs", "monsters", etc.) to the point that not only does no one care about the mass incarceration/government control that is taking place for over 7 million people, but most people think that when these people are imprisoned, they should be made to work for free as part of their punishment.
At the same time, these corporations begin to fund colleges to begin teaching students in criminal justice curriculums that prison labor is a necessary form of punishment for crime. Before long, everyone is drinking the same kool-aid.
Dan Brent: With so many restrictions on your own personal freedoms, how do you cope? How do you keep resisting the system of mass incarceration?
Melvin Ray: I don't "cope,” that's why I resist! My freedom was taken away from me in a violent manner by the state. In essence, I was kidnapped. That's how I define my incarceration at this time, as a kidnapping.
I had a family that I was raising, a business that I was starting, and a future that I was preparing for. The state decided that they would use their legal system to take all of that (and so much more) away from me for a crime that I didn't commit, and on top of that, I was sentenced to life without parole. So there is no way to cope with that.
I resist because I have no choice. The rules of prison are made to institutionalize you and make one a slave. The state needs for us to accept this way of life that they have chosen for us, so that we aren't a management problem for them. Well, I have a problem with it. Harriet Tubman spoke about how although she freed hundreds of slaves, she could have freed thousands more if only they know they were slaves. Well, I know what's going on here, and I reject it wholeheartedly.
When the innocent, mentally ill, and the guilty are enslaved under the same oppression simply because the system deems you expendable, then I recommend that you better resist too, or else you will suffer the most ignoble fate known to humanity: dying as a slave of old age. It's far better to die fighting for your liberation, freedom and honor than it is to live a life of service and docility, constantly enduring abuse by your master. You have to at least be a problem for him; make your name taste like shit in his mouth; constantly be in his head; worry that bastard to death! Whatever you do, don't let him rest at peace at night as long as he holds you captive.