(TEXAS TRIBUNE)- Ten days after Texas inmates across the state began a hunger strike to protest the state’s harsh solitary practices, dozens of men are still refusing to eat, and some are reportedly losing weight daily.
Texas prisoners held in solitary confinement are held in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day. When the level of the staff allows – which is rare – they leave their cells to take a shower or exercise alone in the open areas in the cages. Thousands of prisoners are held in such conditions, and they are usually isolated for years.
More than 500 Texas inmates had been in solitary confinement for more than a decade in November, according to prison officials.
Under department policy, inmates are placed in solitary confinement if they are in danger of escaping, have committed violent assaults or serious offenses in prison, or are confirmed members of dangerous prison gangs. For months, people in several Texas prisons have been urging prison officials and legislators to end the practice of placing and keeping inmates in solitary confinement because they are gang-related, even if they don’t have behavioral problems.
With no noticeable response to their proposal, they went on a hunger strike last Tuesday, the first day of the State Legislature.
Brittany Robertson, an independent activist who coordinated with men in more than a dozen prisons before and during the hunger strike, said she estimates that hundreds of men began refusing to eat last week. On January 13, the first day the Texas Department of Criminal Justice officially recognized the strike since three days had passed, the prison system reported that 72 inmates were on hunger strike.
The number had fallen to 51 by Tuesday, said TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez. On Thursday, she said 38 inmates were still refusing food.
Hernandez said inmate supplies are also being monitored, apparently to ensure that people reporting a strike do not eat packaged food they had previously purchased from the prison store. According to Robertson, prisoners report that their cells are regularly searched for food.
According to the protesting prisoner, the men are also rapidly losing weight. In a report Friday, an inmate at the Coffield unit said the weigh-in showed several men had lost five or more pounds in one day. He said many of the men began to feel dizzy and have muscle spasms, according to a photograph of a letter sent to The Texas Tribune.
According to prison policy, persons on hunger strike must undergo daily medical examinations, while doctors can force-feed prisoners if deemed necessary. Hernandez said on Thursday that the strike has not yet required medical attention.
Messages sent to protesting prisoners by the Tribune newspaper this week have yet to receive a response. Robertson reported that it took longer than usual to receive much of the prisoners’ emails and letters, which the men suspect is retaliation for their protest. Hernandez said the slowdown is due to an increase in the amount of mail, which creates a delay for internal checks on prisoners’ messages.
Prison gangs, often organized along racial lines, are notoriously dangerous and are often held responsible for violence behind bars. However, indefinite solitary confinement is increasingly being criticized as detrimental to mental health and is considered torture by international human rights standards.
The changes proposed by the protesters are similar to the settlement reached in federal court in 2015 against the practice of solitary confinement in California. After a massive two-month hunger strike in 2013 and years of inmate-led litigation, California agreed to no longer place people in solitary confinement solely on the basis of their gang status and no longer keep them in indefinite isolation.
In Texas, inmates are also asking officials to move from “gang status” to “behavioral” solitary confinement and provide clear instructions and clear timelines for how and when people in solitary confinement will exit.
So far, the TDCJ has not relented, instead blaming the strike on the order of a Texas Aryan Brotherhood member in federal prison. Last week, Hernandez said the agency would not give gangs free rein to recruit new members.
Robertson rejected the TDCJ’s conclusion, stating that many of the striking prisoners were members of Hispanic gangs and would not take orders from the Aryan Brotherhood. Instead, she says, men from different gangs have found a way to come together to fight for change.
Prison officials have also indicated that gang members can get out of solitary confinement by renouncing their gang and going through an intensive return program specifically for gang members. However, many inmates struggle to get into the program or choose not to, according to strikers and prisoner rights advocates, because they are often required to name other gang members or testify against themselves.
COPYRIGHT 2023 TEXAS TRIBUNE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.