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‘I’m not an animal’: Prisoners endure second week of hunger strike to end solitary confinement

A hunger strike in Texas prisons has entered its second week as the organizer claimed the prison retaliated by hindering inmates’ attempts to contact the outside world.

Dozens, perhaps more than a hundred men continued to refuse food in protest of living conditions. The prisoners – all men – want to end their imprisonment, where they are kept in solitary confinement for months or even years.

Men in 14 wards across the state spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells. Prison investigators called the practice torture.

The number of strikers was still disputed. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the number had dropped from 72 to 51 since last Friday. One outside organizer said she confirmed 138 people were still on strike, down from 300.

“We will not stop until our proposal is fulfilled. … Wish us luck,” said Joshua Sweeting, an inmate at the Coffield unit, a two-hour drive east of Waco.

He said that he was in solitary confinement because he was in a gang, and not for any violations. The practice of holding certain gang members in solitary confinement has been in use since the mid-1980s in Texas. It was initially driven by the proliferation of prison gangs and the explosion of prison violence.

“I’m not going to stop until something changes,” he wrote in another email through the state system. “We just want a chance… to be treated like human beings. … I’m in seg because of a security risk label, however I don’t have cases due to any [gang] involvement… (NO)… I’m not a saint, there are flaws, but I’m not an animal. …”

Sweeting’s crimes range from burglary to assault.

He said the email messages started arriving later through the service – indeed, both messages were dated 5-6 days before they were received. He also indicated that he did not receive any messages from TPR, despite the fact that these messages were sent a week ago.

“So, our connection has slowed down. Today I received a message that was sent on the 12th and then continued to receive messages every day since,” said Brittany Roberston, an outside organizer of the strike.

Robertson said that this is done in order to quell the officials’ hunger strike. She added that she had heard that other non-participating inmates did not suffer from the same communication delays. She also said that the men who participated in the action had their rooms searched several times, and their personal belongings were missing. TPR cannot independently confirm any of the claims.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied the allegations, but confirmed that every message sent to and received from inmates is handled by a TDCJ officer.

“I know mail volume is increasing, so it may take longer to review and process,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.

Hernandez could not immediately provide data on the volume of messages.

Texas prison

Criminal Justice Hunger Strike in Texas Prisons Continues Paul Flahive

The state says it has 3,100 people in solitary confinement, the lowest in 15 years and up from 9,000.

The strike was timed to coincide with the opening of the legislative session. The organizers sent a proposal to change the system to end indefinite or permanent solitary confinement and instead replace it with a system that gradually returns prisoners to the general population. Prisoners could then be judged by their behavior rather than their status as restricted gang members.

Texas is one of the few prison systems that still uses this practice. California ended the practice almost a decade ago after a week-long hunger strike involving 30,000 prisoners and a class action lawsuit.

Many of the men held in solitary confinement will be released from prison at some point, and there are many concerns about the psychological damage often associated with the practice.

“You don’t want to see people go straight from solitary confinement to society,” said David Piruz, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies prisons and gangs. “It usually shows that they are more likely to relapse. They have a more difficult transition into communities.”

Texas prison officials have said they are violent and organized gangs that they cannot trust the freedom of prisons to recruit.

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

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