Texas inmates go on hunger strike over solitary confinement

The Texas Legislature opened Tuesday, but as lawmakers reconvened at the State House, people in Texas jails demanded to be heard.

A large-scale hunger strike began on Tuesday to protest the state’s solitary confinement practices, reportedly involving some 300 incarcerated people across the state. Texas has been known to take a pretty tough stance when it comes to solitary confinement, with some inmates held in isolation for years or even decades.

Michelle Deutsch, director of the University of Texas Prison Innovation Lab at Austin, said people are on strike until the Texas Department of Criminal Justice meets a series of demands that were first put forward months ago.

The first requirement is to change the indefinite nature of solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing. This makes it difficult for detainees to know when they will leave restrictive housing or what steps they need to take to get out, she said.

“(They are also) trying to move from a status-based system to a behavior-based system. Many people are placed in high-security homes simply because of their status as a recognized gang member, and not necessarily because they broke any rules or behaved in a way that is dangerous to society,” Deutsch said. “So one of the requests is that they use behavior as a guide to who should be there.”

Deitch said she doesn’t want to downplay the dangerous impact prison gangs and violence have on those living behind bars. However, she said that preemptive solitary confinement is harmful.

“The thought was that if you could separate the people who are in gangs from the general population, it would create a safer environment. And in many ways it is,” she said. “However, it really became a torture for people who are in such an environment. There are many studies showing that people who spend 23 hours a day in these very small spaces without human contact develop suicidal thoughts. They develop mental health problems. And I think the study really showed us that we need to look for other strategies and ways to keep our prisons safe without torturing people in these conditions.”

Deitch said the requirements in Texas prisons reflect an agreement inmates made with the state of California nearly a decade ago.

“The general consensus is that it works well,” she said. “So I think this is something that the agency needs to look at very closely, if there are ways they could approach this issue that would be both safer and more appropriate.”

Ditch also noted the risks associated with participating in a hunger strike.

“It certainly poses a risk for life-threatening conditions,” she said. “And I think it’s also important to point out what a sacrifice it is for people who are in an environment where they have absolutely nothing to give up. The only thing they have is food. And while many people would say, “Well, there’s not much to say about the food,” that’s true, but it’s really all they have. So it’s a huge sacrifice, reflecting the seriousness of their concerns.”

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