In 29 years in prison, David Bonner has mopped floors, cooked hot dogs, and cut sheets of aluminum into Alabama license plates. That job paid $2 a day, enough to buy a bar of soap at the commissary or make a short phone call. “This is slavery,” said Bonner, 51, who is serving a life sentence for murder. “We’re forced to work these jobs and we get barely anything,” reports the Los Angeles Times. He was speaking on a mobile phone smuggled into his 8-by-12 foot cell in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility, where he and dozens of other inmates were on strike. They’re among a growing national movement of prisoners who have staged work stoppages or hunger strikes this fall to protest dismal wages, abusive guards, overcrowding, and poor health care.
Prisoners’ rights activists call it one of the largest prison protests in modern history, drawing in at least 20,000 inmates in at least 24 prisons in 23 states. Corrections officials have confirmed inmate protests in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida since early September. In several states, including Virginia, Ohio, and Texas, officials denied claims by activists that strikes have occurred. Alabama officials acknowledged the protest at the Holman prison, 52 miles northeast of Mobile, though they said it was limited to a one-day strike by 60 inmates who worked in the kitchen and license plate plant, far less extensive than the 10 days in September and October that activists described. Inmates say “there is this big, wide work stoppage but that is just not the case,” said Alabama corrections spokesman Bob Horton. Holman is “overcrowded and understaffed,” Horton said, adding that state officials were working to fix the problem. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who visited Holman this year, described the state corrections system as being “in crisis” and has pushed for funding to build new prisons.