Texas inmates go on hunger strike to protest brutal solitary confinement in the state

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Prisoners across Texas are preparing to send a dramatic message to prison officials and state legislators: We won’t eat until you stop at the state’s harsh solitary practices.

For about a year, a group of prisoners organized support inside and outside the prison walls to pressure the state to limit the number of people held in solitary confinement and for how long, according to an independent activist who works closely with the men.

The practice of solitary confinement in Texas is one of the harshest in the country, according to Michelle Deutsch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Thousands of prisoners are kept in isolation for long periods of time, their only human contact being the occasional touch of the hand through the food hole while receiving a dinner tray, or being handcuffed for the often infrequent trips to the shower or to the open area in the cage for solitary recreation.

In November, 3,141 inmates were held in solitary confinement, which the Texas Department of Criminal Justice refers to as restricted or security custody, according to the agency. More than 500 of them have been there for at least ten years.

First of all, the prisoners argue that they cannot be kept in isolation for years or even decades just because officials have identified them as members of a prison gang, even if they did not have any behavioral problems in the isolation room.

After months of waiting for prison officials or state legislators to respond unsuccessfully to their list of proposed changes, the men plan to launch a massive hunger strike starting Tuesday, the first day of the Texas legislative session.

It’s unclear how many inmates will join the hunger strike, but activist Brittany Robertson estimated on Friday that more than 300 men held in solitary confinement in more than a dozen jails across Texas have signed up to protest.

TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said the agency was aware of the planned hunger strike and prison officials were closely monitoring those in solitary confinement “to see if their eating habits had changed.” Hernandez did not respond to questions about possible policy changes or talks with prisoners.

The sentences of the prisoners are similar to settlement agreement reached in federal court after two-month hunger strike in 2013 against the practice of solitary confinement in California. In 2015, after years of inmate litigation and legislative hearings fueled by popular outcry, California agreed to no longer place people in solitary confinement based solely on their gang status, nor would it keep people in indefinite isolation.

Both practices are still active in Texas.

“Indefinitely placed under such conditions is a real form of torture,” Deutsch said, citing international human rights standards which define more than 15 days of solitary confinement as torture.

Experts in Psychiatry agreed that solitary confinement harms any prisoner, especially those who already have mental illness. 2015 study by Texas Civil Rights Organizations argued that the state’s excessive use of solitary confinement was unnecessarily costly to taxpayers, increased crime and violence in prisons, and further worsened the condition of thousands of mentally ill people.

However, the number of Texas prisoners held in isolation used to be much higher. Fifteen years ago, more than 9,000 prisoners were held in solitary confinement at any one time, according to the TDCJ. Their numbers are steadily declining as more is known about the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners, the vast majority of whom will one day return to the free world.

“The agency is committed to continuing to reduce the number of prisoners held for security reasons by redirecting them before being placed in restrictive housing and by providing effective programs that offer prisoners pathways out of isolation,” Hernandez said.

A spokesman for the TDCJ said that prisoners are only placed in solitary confinement after extensive checks and are then regularly checked for transfer to a general prison. She added that prisoners are only placed in solitary confinement if they are in danger of escaping, have committed violent attacks or serious offenses in prison, or are confirmed members of dangerous prison gangs.

It is the latter criterion that prompts a hunger strike.

“TDCJ’s statement that the placement [gang] members in [restricted housing] necessary for safety and security … has been rebutted by several other states and the federal bureau of prisons across the country that manage these groups and allow them to remain in the general population,” the prisoners wrote in their proposal.

Deutsch stressed that prison gangs, often organized along racial lines, are extremely dangerous and cause serious acts of violence in prisons. But she still thinks the changes proposed by the prisoners are reasonable.

The inmates will change Texas policy from “status” to “behavioral” by putting people in solitary confinement for serious rule violations rather than just gang membership. Their proposal would also set clear deadlines for people to get out of solitary confinement and create new pathways to re-enter the prison population.

Deitch and the prisoner proposal argue that the current review hearing is a joke, and Deitch says that prisoners can be kept in solitary confinement because they have gang-related tattoos, even if they have shown good behavior.

There is currently a re-entry program for confirmed gang members, but that could take years and prisoners would have to testify against themselves or name other gang members, they said.

“You can be considered a snitch for naming names,” Deutsch said. “Therefore, there are many people who do not want to go through this process, because it is dangerous and extremely difficult to get into.”

Robertson and several current and former inmates from Texas are hoping the hunger strike will bring them to the negotiating table with prison authorities and lawmakers, as happened in California.

A Wisconsin prisoner rights activist who talks to dozens of loners in Texas, Robertson noted the growing crisis in Texas prisons largely due to staff shortage and the pandemic, including poor food quality and portion sizes, lack of showers or rest time for those in lockdown, and high rates of suicide. TDCJ reported 61 suicides in 2021 and 49 as of November last year, up from 35 in 2019.

“These people can’t afford a 10-year lawsuit,” Robertson said, referring to the California legal battle to change solitary confinement. “They need help now.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin provides financial support to The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial sponsors play no role in Tribune journalism. Find the complete list them here.

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