Dispatch from an Alabama Prison

“Being Black in America in the eyes of the law means you are nothing”

We talked with James at the beginning of this year about the violence he’s faced in Alabama’s prisons after a brutal stabbing with an ice pick by another inmate high on drugs. He was transferred to a different prison right when COVID-19 started. Last week we caught up with him on the phone. He’s continued to struggle to get adequate care for his injuries and is now worried that he will get COVID-19.

“It’s real serious in this prison,” James said. The virus is already in the prison. Because of a punctured lung from the assault he survived, he’s at high risk for the virus. His wife said he only just stopped sounding like a robot when he tries to breath.

"It's real serious in this prison"

Both the inmates and the guards aren’t taking the COVID-19 seriously, he said. Officers show up to work while sick because they are afraid to loose their job, and inmates have limited ability to practice distancing and recommended sanitation practices. Inmates who get sick are told they have sinus problems or have a cold, he said. He’s worried if he got sick that he’d face the same lack of medical care that he did after his assault.

Many Black men are put in jail for false charges, and James says he is one of them. He doesn’t believe he should be in prison. “I am tired. I am frustrated a lot because I am supposed to be home,” he said.

Over the past months since his assault, he’s become increasingly mentally stressed. “I am losing my mind,” he said. He had to fight for his life after the assault. He was transferred to a prison he says is more violent then his last, and now COVID-19 is in the prison.

“[I] almost lost my life then. If I do catch it, I might not get over it,” he said. There is a cruel irony that James fought to survive only to be faced with another life threat, and now he’s watching America march for another Black man: George Floyd

Floyd’s murder doesn’t surprise him though. How can it? He’s a Black man in America in prison.

"Black lives matter, but in the eyes of the law, Black lives don't matter"

“Our lives don’t matter,” he said. “Black lives matter, but in the eyes of the law, Black lives don’t matter,” he said over the phone.

“It is not right for law enforcement to treat a person like that,” he said. He is watching the whole world rebel from his cell. “Change has never come by being peaceful,” he said. “A lot of people have lost their lives for change.” The justice system’s injustice doesn’t just stop in the streets. If Floyd had survived the police officers brutality, he just would have been caught by the legal system that James is still tangled in.

“Just let me out. Let me go home to my family,” James said over the phone Friday. He feels like his life was taken away by the judge that sentenced him, and he is not sure he will make it out of prison alive to ever get it back.

Context: George Floyd had his own unjust encounters with police before they killed him.

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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.