Texas inmates enter third week of hunger strike against solitary confinement

Austin (Nexstar) — At least two dozen Texas inmates have been on a hunger strike for 13 days to protest the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s solitary confinement policy.

The strike began on January 10, the first day of the Texas legislative session, with more than 70 prisoners taking part. That number has since dropped to at least 24. Forty percent of the remaining strikers participated for all 13 days, with the rest “participating from time to time,” according to the TDCJ.

Brittany Robertson, a Texas prison reform activist, had contact with inmates during the strike and believes the TDCJ underreported the number of participants. She said that as of Monday afternoon, up to 50 prisoners could participate.

“One of the participants is being threatened with force-feeding,” she said. “He is an older gentleman and is willing to sacrifice himself if it gives the younger generation an opportunity.”

Robertson said that the conditions and length of solitary confinement severely damaged the physical and emotional health of prisoners, led to suicide, and countered the criminal justice system’s own goals.

The calendar for a prisoner in solitary confinement at Robertson’s TDCJ unit shows only seven days of rest and 15 showers in January 2022. (Source: Brittany Robertson)

“When you take someone who is struggling to cope with life and keep them isolated, you don’t let them go outside, you don’t let them feel embraced or learn how to create something while in such isolation. the state, and then you release them… What Texans need to know is that a lack of rehab directly contributes to your crime,” she said.

One letter, which Robertson says she received from an inmate at the TDCJ unit in Ferguson, details the shortage of staff leading to neglect.

“I am writing because here at Ferguson Unit they claim they are understaffed so they only showered on Monday, Wednesday and Friday when the temperature is over 100 degrees every day,” the prisoner wrote. “Not only that, they also serve one or two meals by serving… a paper bag that contains one peanut butter sandwich and another sandwich. This has been going on and on for the last few weeks. We had prisoners who collapsed from the heat. We’re in desperate need of help here and I’m sure we’re not the only unit in Texas going through this, but this really needs to be addressed.”

A letter from an inmate at the TDCJ unit in Ferguson details the shortage of staff resulting in minimal food and showers (Source: Brittany Robertson).

There are currently 3,141 people in isolation, according to the TDCJ. They report that the number of prisoners held for security reasons has been cut by more than half over the past decade, with over 7,000 prisoners held in isolation in 2013.

“Security incarcerated accounts for less than 3% of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice incarcerated. It is being used wisely,” said TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez.

Over the past decade, the number of prisoners held in isolation has decreased by 56 per cent. Source: TDCJ

The TDCJ stated that “security detention” is for the protection of staff and other inmates and is for “confirmed members of the most organized and dangerous prison gangs, prisoners in danger of escaping, and prisoners who have committed assaults or other serious disciplinary offences.” are being held for security reasons.

Some lawmakers are pushing for further restrictions on the practice this session. Rep. Terry Meza (D-Irving) has filed a number of bills to address this issue.

“The thought of someone being held in solitary confinement for years is unthinkable to me,” she told KXAN. “It looks like an inhuman punishment. What if one of us goes and tries to spend one day in solitary confinement? I don’t believe I can handle it.”

A sketch depicting the emotions of a prisoner’s isolation at the TDCJ unit in Ferguson. (Source: Brittany Robertson)

HB 812 will limit isolation to three consecutive days for general misconduct and ten consecutive days for violent inmates. The Texas Tribune reports that more than 500 prisoners have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

HB 480 will not allow the TDCJ to segregate an inmate solely on the basis of their gang membership and will require the department to determine if an inmate poses an imminent threat to another. The department will also need to assess the prisoner’s status on a weekly basis to determine if a more lenient detention is appropriate. The TDCJ currently screens inmates for transfer to the general population “at least once a month”. Prisoners also go through a “thorough vetting process” before they are placed in isolation, Hernandez said, and can appeal the decision through a complaints process.

HB 813 will direct state agencies to study the impact of isolation on the physical and mental health of prisoners and report the results to state officials by December next year.

“I would hope that [TDCJ] will take into account the restricted housing offer and establish clearer rules on who can be in restricted housing and for how long,” Robertson said. “I want the legislative session to understand that men have been in isolation for 20 years and they have not committed any additional crimes to get this isolation. [it’s] just on the basis of belonging and they will get out anyway. Therefore, we hope to see something that will give them a chance for rehabilitation.”

The TDCJ said the strikers are assessed daily and so far none of them have required medical attention.

“The agency has several strategies in place to reduce the number of security detainees in line with the priority given to security,” Hernandez said. “One strategy is to offer distraction programs to prisoners so they don’t end up in a security prison. Another offers prisoners a way out of restricted housing through targeted programming.

Robertson said she and the prisoner coalition are considering legal action if the strike does not change policy.

“They are not asking for freedom. They don’t even claim to be innocent. They say: “I’ve been here for 20 years, I would really like to get into programming and become better.”

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