Alabama Prisoners Use Secret Cellphones to Protest—and Riot
Even solitary confinement can’t keep some inmates at Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility from organizing and fighting back.
Alabama’s most violent prison is primed to explode after an uprising two weeks ago and a new warden with a history of turning prisons into slaughterhouses.
Carter F. Davenport became warden of Holman Correctional Facility in December after four years in charge of St. Clair Correctional Facility. When he started at St. Clair, it was Alabama’s least-violent maximum security prison; after he was done, the murder rate jumped 200 percent. Inmates say Davenport has brought the ruthless methods used at St. Clair to Holman with disastrous results.
“He creates a climate of violence,” says “Poetik,” an inmate in solitary confinement since last year for his role as a prison activist and in Holman for more than a decade for murder.
Poetik and other inmates spoke to The Daily Beast on strict condition of anonymity, saying they feared for their lives if identified because Warden Davenport has allegedly threatened retaliation against those who report abuse. Several inmates communicated via contraband cellphones and would incur severe discipline if caught.
In the early morning of March 12 inmates took control of “C” Dorm, setting fires and smashing windows—and livestreaming it on Facebook with smuggled-in cellphones. Just like police brutality that went unseen by the public for decades until cellphones with cameras became ubiquitous, these inmates showed the nation what hell prison is like without censorship.
“This what goin’ on at Holman prison, man, niggas done stabbed the warden, niggas done stabbed the police…” begins a video posted by “PA Brazeal,” Facebook pseudonym of an inmate who shot a minute-and-a-half video of the upturned prison dormitory. He narrates while walking to a central guard station where fellow inmates are burning plexiglass by using baby oil as for lighter fuel.
About the time the Corrections Emergency Response Team was preparing to storm the block, Brazeal wrote in the comments under his video:
“We fucked up they comin.’”
The riot began after a fight between inmates at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Department of Corrections officials said in a statement. “An officer was stabbed when he tried to detain one of the inmates involved in the fight,” officials continued, and Warden Davenport was also stabbed when he and others came in for backup. (Both men sustained non-life-threatening injuries.)
Prison officials say the guard encountered resistance when he tried to break up the fight, but inmates told The Daily Beast that it was already over when the guard came in and began swearing at inmates and tossing bunks arbitrarily.
“Two inmates got in a fight, and 30 minutes later, the C.O. comes in yelling, disrespecting everyone, tearing a bunch of guys’ shit up, guys that got nothing to do with it,” Poetik told The Daily Beast. An “elder” inmate, a long-timer who has built a rapport with staff, stepped in to calm things down, Poetik said.
“The officer did not wanna hear that shit, and he started yelling and cussing at him, and that’s when the stabbing started.”
Poetik said Warden Davenport “came down with the same attitude, cussing this guy out—so then it was no more talking, and he got stabbed.”
The wife of an inmate in “B” dorm, adjacent to the one where the riot originated, told The Daily Beast that her husband and fellow prisoners secured the door to their dorm with padlocks from their footlockers after the riot started. They were less afraid of being hurt by rioters than by the prison staff’s inevitably harsh punishment.
“They didn’t want any part of it,” she said, also requesting anonymity.
“My husband called me and woke me up to tell me what happened and to tell me to get word out” about the riot, which he attributed to overcrowding. She said her husband, who is serving a life sentence for murder, is accustomed to the violence but that she fears every day for his life.
“When all of this was going down, there wasn’t even one guard in his dorm.”
“My husband told me to tell you that the conditions there are deplorable,” she said, citing the Grade-D meat fed to prisoners which is delivered in boxes labeled “not for human consumption,” and a prevailing attitude of contempt for inmates among corrections employees. She also blames Davenport for degenerating conditions at Holman.
“Davenport is dangerous, in my estimation. They should have gotten rid of him a long time ago.”
Davenport began as a corrections officer trainee in 1987 and rose through the ranks, acting as warden at Camden Community-Based Facility and Work Center, captain at Tutwiler Prison for Women (PDF), and then as deputy warden at Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio. He was promoted to warden at St. Clair Correctional Facility in October 2010 “despite a history of discipline for unprofessional conduct,” reported AL.com.
Once in charge, Davenport canceled the prisoner-initiated Convicts Against Violence program that had been credited with reducing assaults at the prison. Guards got more vicious, and he even joined in the violence, punching a handcuffed inmate in the head for swearing at him in 2012. (Davenport confessed and received two days’ suspension.)
When Joey Waldrop became the fifth man in 30 months murdered at St. Clair in June 2014, a formal request to remove Davenport was made by the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization which advocates for indigent convicts and which had already sounded alarms about Davenport’s leadership. No action was taken, and when a sixth inmate was murdered less than three months later, EJI sued on behalf of inmates.
The class action lawsuit (PDF) offered a glimpse of the real-life horror show inside the prison’s walls, where Davenport and his subordinates, especially Captain Carl Sanders and Captain Gary Malone, named as co-defendants in the lawsuit, “allowed a dangerous and violent environment to flourish.”
Citing the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest data, the suit reads: “In 2011, the national homicide rate in state prisons was approximately 5.4 homicides per 100,000 prisoners. The homicide rate at St. Clair during the same time period was approximately 75.4 homicides per 100,000 prisoners.”
By 2014, the homicide rate was “232.4 per 100,000 prisoners.”
Instead of protecting inmates from assault, staff allegedly made morbid jokes to fearful complainants and subjected prisoners to “arbitrary and unpredicted bullying.” Captain Sanders told an inmate who had been stolen from after the captain moved him to a new bunk that he’d moved him “so that something like that would happen to him.”
When the inmate went over Sanders’s head to the warden, the suit claimed, “Defendant Davenport responded by asking [him] if he had a knife yet.” The man said he hadn’t, and Davenport allegedly told him he needed “to do what he needed to do to survive on his new block.”
Other advice from staff to concerned prisoners allegedly included “get a knife,” “kill him or kill yourself,” and “if you really don’t like him, stab him.”
In response to the suit and local news exposure, the Alabama Department of Corrections said “if and when personnel transfers occur, they are based on where staff can best serve the department and not on the demands of outside requests.”
A few months later, Davenport was reassigned along with nine others in a “shakeup” of the prison system that followed the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas in January 2015. The transfers were supposedly to “make room for reform,” but actually just shuffled troublesome wardens to new facilities. Davenport was assigned for nine months to Easterling, where he’d previously been deputy warden.
Holman was already a tinderbox when the Department of Corrections threw a human match in the form of Davenport inside.
Holman currently holds 991 inmates—around 150 percent of its designed-capacity of 637. In 2015 there were 13 assaults against inmates and 17 assaults on guards by prisoners, according to DOC records. Since 2011 total assaults have increased 61 percent, according to a report which also found that in the past three years staff members were assaulted more frequently than prisoners.
Pictures and video shared with The Daily Beast by Holman inmates reveal the overcrowded housing conditions of the dormitory blocks—designed to hold just 100, but now with around 140 in each dorm, the scene is reminiscent of an emergency shelter or refugee camp.
Holman houses most of Alabama’s 183 prisoners on death row and all of the condemned from across the state are sent there to be executed. Before Alabama adopted lethal injection in 2000 the prison housed “Yellow Mama,” the antique and savagely inefficient electric chair known for igniting body parts and slowly cooking the condemned for several minutes before finally killing them.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 report Cruel Confinement: Abuse, Discrimination and Death Within Alabama’s Prisons (PDF) documented the bleak state of medical care and personal protection at what is not just Alabama’s but among the nation’s most violent prisons.
“[One] prisoner at Holman Correctional Facility reports that he watched several men with hepatitis C become jaundiced as their disease progressed without treatment and their livers began to fail. An inmate on suicide watch, in supposedly ‘protective custody,’ was set on fire by a ‘flaming cloth thrown on him by other prisoners,’ causing burns on his legs. The guards put the fire out, but refused to take him to see a doctor [for more than 24 hours], saying the burns were ‘nothing.’”
A prison system-wide protest group called the Free Alabama Movement was started by inmates in 2013 to organize against what participants called slave labor in the prison system. The group organized a series of multi-prison strikes where inmates refused to report to their assigned jobs. The organizers are all now in solitary confinement at their respective facilities, and considered to be leaders of an “Security Threat Group,” classified the same as a gang.
Robert Earl Council, aka Kinetik, is one of these organizers. Kinetik, Poetik, and other inmates throughout the state’s prison system maintain a communications network using contraband cell phones and some “freeworld assistance.”
Poetik recounted a previous riot at Holman under former Warden Grantt Culliver, also transferred last year. He said that the inmates in the block who had not participated “sent representatives and said ‘Let us surrender.’” Culliver’s reply, according to Poetik, was “There’s no surrender, you’re already in prison.”
Karma, another Free Alabama Movement activist, has been in prison for over 10 years for first-degree robbery and assault, and spoke to The Daily Beast on a cellphone from the prison dormitory.
In 2014, after an assault on a corrections officer during a sweep for contraband cellphones, a DOC spokesperson told AL.com that they had become a serious security threat in the state’s prisons. Inmates had control of the dorm for approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes. The DOC is considering steps to jam select signals to render inmate phones useless. Karma says he’s had his phone since he came to prison and could be reached on it “anytime.”
“Our plan is to have a statewide strike which may in turn have a domino effect on other states,” Karma said. “The problem doesn’t start in the prison, the prison system is a result of the machine of racism.”
Karma cites Michele Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in explaining the movement’s position that mass incarceration is an evolved form of black slavery.
“Our goal is to eliminate slavery altogether. It shouldn’t exist just because someone committed a crime—whether you have stolen a piece of gum or killed someone, you should not be made a slave.
“Slavery is only legal under the criminal justice system. If we are gonna continue to work for free, we continue to give them the power by which they can keep the system going. We have to affect the money. If we affect the money, then they’ll have to downsize.
“We are not sentenced to hard labor, we are only sentenced to time, and if we stop working in the kitchen, working in the halls, making license plates, I promise you we will be able to break this system.
“We refuse to give slave labor. We’re not going to work in the fields anymore.”
The movement’s members at Holman issued a set of demands to the department of corrections last Monday post-weekend riot, after barricading themselves in the same dorm.
The inmates requested “immediate federal assistance,” and for the government of Alabama to immediately release all prisoners who have spent “excessive time” at Holman—given the facility’s particularly degraded conditions. They also want the state’s habitual offender law repealed, expanded education, training, and rehabilitation, and monetary damages awarded for their pain and suffering as a class.
Gov. Robert Bentley toured Holman last Tuesday, shadowed by rifle-toting state troopers in full flak gear and helmets, to see the damage and meet with Davenport, who he commended. The governor warned of a “volatile mix of overcrowding and understaffing [that] have created an environment that is dangerous to both inmates as well as the Corrections Officers who serve our state.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections currently incarcerates 29,605 persons (17,000 black and 13,000 white), which is 220 percent of its designed capacity. The department is also chronically understaffed. Though authorized by state law to have around 6,000 employees, it has operated with between 3,000 and 4,000 staff for the last decade.
Bentley warned that another riot should be expected. Poetik agrees that it is just a matter of time until another violent outbreak at Holman or another prison: “As we know, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
“We were already solving this problem” when the riot broke out, said Bentley at a press conference Tuesday. “We have good people in place.”
Bentley capitalized on the incident to boost his prison reform and funding plan, the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, which would consolidate the state’s dozens of facilities and build four new prisons at a cost of $800 million. The governor’s plan also includes more opportunity under state law for private corporations to profit from incarceration.