Hunger strike in Texas prisons continues

Hundreds of men may have gone without food for days in Texas prisons to protest their confinement, permanent or prolonged solitary confinement. This is the second hunger strike in connection with the practice in two years.

Formerly referred to as administrative segregation, this is the process of separating prisoners from the general population, further restricting their movements, behavior and privileges. People are kept in prison cells for more than 22 hours a day.

In Texas, this process largely separates those associated with a particular gang, but also high-risk prisoners and those who have committed assaults and other disciplinary offences.

“It’s being used judiciously,” said Amanda Hernandez, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for detention, which in Texas is called security detention.

She also noted that the size of the program has decreased by 65% ​​since 2007, when it was 9,186 people, to 3,100.

Advocates said about 300 men, or about 10% of those living in the confined space, are participating in peaceful protests against their conditions and practice of indefinite solitary confinement.

Last year, 16 men went on hunger strike for several days for the same reasons, with one man having to be hospitalized. The number has risen to at least 72 during the current strike, according to the TDCJ.

Restrictive housing has been used in Texas since at least the mid-80s when there was an explosion in gang numbers and violence. Dozens of people have died in less than two years.

“The idea was that if you could separate the gang people from the general population, it would create a safer environment,” said Michelle Deitch, director of the LBJ prison and prison laboratory at Texas Law University, in an interview with Texas standard.

“And in many ways it is,” she said. “However, it has created something that really amounts to torture for the people who are in that environment.”

“The vast majority of men are placed in this housing without incident indefinitely without disciplinary action,” documents sent to state lawmakers said. The hunger strike was announced on Tuesday in connection with the opening of the 88th Texas legislature.

In the package, they described the lack of direct communication with loved ones, lack of access to GED programs, and poor conditions, complemented by a shortage of staff, in which men could only shower once a week, and in one block, the men were outside. rest time five times in three years.

The TDCJ disputed the descriptions.

Numerous studies of solitary confinement have shown that its use exacerbates mental and physical health problems.

“Prisoners are only assigned to these zones after an extensive screening process and then screened periodically for reassignment,” Hernandez said.

The TDCJ reported that a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, who is in federal prison, is leading the hunger strike. Independent attorney Brittany Robertson, who helped organize the outside effort, said the description was false.

The process of getting known gang members out of these conditions of solitary confinement in Texas is to renounce their gang affiliation through the Gang Renunciation and Disassociation Program. Prisoners say the program puts them in danger by forcing them to “deal” with law enforcement.

“To put it in prison language, this would be a denunciation of the group and a report on the organizational structure of the group, naming other members of the group. And it’s very risky,” said David Pirouz, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Third-party organizers said they were repeating protests in California from a decade ago that involved hundreds of people, some of which lasted two months. A class action lawsuit by these inmates resulted in changes to the system, including a shift from “status” or simply restricted gang membership to determining who is in restrictive housing based on behavior.

“Texas is one of the few places left when I explored penitentiary systems that would use status-based reasons to house gang members in restrictive conditions,” Piruz explained.

TDCJ shows no interest in changing its policy.

“We will not give them a free hand in our correctional facilities so that they can recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises,” Hernandez said.

According to Pyrooz, a recent survey of prison administrators found that 70% found the practice to be highly effective and 20% found it to be somewhat effective, while nationwide data on the practice’s effectiveness is sparse and far less clear.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To learn more, visit Texas Public Radio.

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