Swift Justice will not reveal his given name, age, or the length of his prison sentence. “All people know and need to know about me is that I am a slave to the prison industrial complex,” he told me over the phone from a prison in Alabama.
Swift Justice is the cofounder of a nonprofit called Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle (UVOTCJ). Led by incarcerated individuals, UVOTCJ says its ultimate goal is to end prison slavery but, for now, it is addressing overcrowding, violence, and corruption in the US prison system by holding rallies, educating families during prison visitation hours, and engaging the media. The organization works to amplify the voices of those who experience prison injustice and abuse firsthand.
When it was founded in 2017, UVOTCJ’s mission was to help connect children with their incarcerated parents. But soon, UVOTCJ pivoted to address what it felt was an even more urgent need: to give incarcerated individuals a more effective way of communicating their experiences and demands beyond prison walls. Less than a year ago, it began to work with outside organizers to extend its influence.
It has also narrowed their work to focus on Alabama’s prisons, widely regarded as the most inhumane in the country. The hope is that collaboration with outsiders and a focus on one state will bring the changes UVOTCJ’s organizers have long sought.
Swift Justice will play a central role in this fight. Along with other organizations, such as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Swift Justice helped organize the nationwide prison strikes in 2016 and ’18 and has acted as a spokesperson for the movement.
The 2016 prison strike began on September 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, a prison rebellion in New York that ended in a shoot-out that killed 39 people. For a week, more than 24,000 prisoners across 24 states abstained from activities such as working, eating, and using their commissary, making it at the time the largest prison strike ever. That record lasted two years. From August 21 to September 9, 2018, tens of thousands of inmates across the country refused to work and went on hunger strikes. Both nationwide strikes were in response to atrocious prison conditions and had a list of 10 demands, which tackled issues like racist sentencing, the stripping of voting rights from “so-called ‘ex-felons,’” and the denial of rehabilitation programs.
The 2016 and ’18 strikes garnered national media attention, and prison conditions briefly became a nationwide scandal. Swift Justice told me it’s a rare and powerful event when inside voices capture the attention of the media and public, but the most important part of his work to him is inspiring other inmates: “Organizing gives hope, and that’s what is lost in here. It can feel like there is no light in the tunnel in here. Organizing gives you hope that one day people may actually view you as a human.”
Mona Song, an outside organizer who joined the organization in November of 2018, told me success for UVOTCJ isn’t media attention but restoring trust with prisoners and showing people in power that they’re being watched. “The very act of bearing witness, packing the courts, for example, sends the message to authorities that we know what is going on, and we are not going to let them get away with it,” she said.
Song added that outside organizers “do everything we can to communicate and learn from the inside, so that we are able to absorb their fire, passion, intelligence, and commitment. It is a combination of daily correspondence and long-term trust building. Nothing happens without their consent.”
It was after the April 2019 release of the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation’s scathing findings regarding Alabama’s prison conditions that UVOTCJ chose to focus its efforts on that state. The New York Times reported that the DOJ investigation had revealed that prisoners “were tortured, burned, raped, sodomized, stabbed and murdered in largely unsupervised dorms.”
UVOTCJ called upon families of prisoners to travel to Washington, DC, on September 20, 2019, to demand that the DOJ file suit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
Gathering in Pershing Park, on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd of 60 people sang, spoke, held hands, and stood in solidarity with those inside.
Nercrisha Wallace, a former prisoner at Julia Tutwiler Prison, was one of the speakers. She spent 14 years in Tutwiler, the only women’s prison in Alabama.
“I stand here for the people who have shared tears, been brutalized, treated with unusual cruelty. I am standing for the people who are still behind bars. It’s time for doors to be open. We need real rehabilitation and corrections. We are standing for the broken, the bruised, the children without parents,” she said at the rally.
Guards at Tutwiler have raped and impregnated women, according to the DOJ. A 2013 DOJ investigation found that “Tutwiler has a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and harassment. The women at Tutwiler universally fear for their safety.”
Following this finding, the DOJ made a settlement agreement with the ADOC. Alabama would install “state-of-the-art camera systems” to protect inmates from sexual harassment; ensure that each prisoner knows of her right to be free from sexual abuse and harassment; and train staff to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse.
Four years after the Tutwiler agreement, Swift Justice said inside organizers regret not ensuring that the DOJ would hold the ADOC accountable to enforce real change. But he said they’ve learned from that failure and this time are employing a more collaborative model of organizing.
This past month, UVOTCJ launched a letter-writing campaign to pressure the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jay Town, to litigate and enforce immediate and meaningful action. Song says that Town has not done anything to respond to the investigation or to the September 20 rally.
“The most important thing is to amplify the message that there is no negotiating when it comes to human rights, it is [the government’s] job to protect our constitutional rights,” said Song.
Town is not likely to be sympathetic to Alabama’s inmates. In 2018, he celebrated the record number of arrests and incarcerations in Alabama. “One thing I am trying to instill is that we are all prosecutors,” he said. “We’re all engaged in the same mission.”
The DOJ gave the state 49 days to “adequately” respond to the violations and poor conditions. That deadline passed six months ago.
Swift Justice said he hopes to help organize another nonviolent prison strike that includes organizers on the outside as well. He doesn’t expect this fight to be a short or easy one: “Most people don’t understand prison organizing because it’s hidden and the public’s understanding of us is that we are violent animals, not rational organizers.”
Outside organizers have more access and visibility than those inside and can be a conduit for the demands of those who are often ignored. “This movement is only possible with collective action that starts on the inside and carries on to the outside,” said Song. “There is a crucial support system on the outside that ensures that voices are heard and that when they are retaliated against, the outside can publicize, push, and lend fire to support those who would otherwise be isolated.”
Swift Justice worries that outside involvement could overshadow inside voices for the same reason that he believes that it is necessary to incorporate them—they are louder, more credible, and accessible. “We can’t do it from the inside by ourselves, those on the outside are literally our voice,” he said. “We need unity in the masses.”
With the surge in deaths in Alabama’s prisons and the failure of the state to respond to DOJ reports and UVOTCJ’s letters, Swift Justice fears that if there is continued inaction, there will be another Attica.
“There is only so much we can endure in here,” he warned. “Eventually, our hope will be gone, and it will be our blood running through the water.”