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Hunger strike in Texas prisons continues

Death Row guard Sgt. Stanley Poole walks the hallway of "A" Pod, "F" Section of death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livinston, Texas, about 75 miles northeast of Houston, November 2021. Texas' death row is the largest in the nation, with 435 condemned prisoners in residence.
Richard Carson
Polunsky Unit file photo REUTERS/Richard Carson RJC/HK

Hundreds of men may have been going without food for days inside Texas’ prisons to protest their incarceration inside of Restrictive Housing, permanent or long-term solitary confinement. This is the second hunger strike over the practice in two years.

Previously called Administrative Segregation, it is the process of separating incarcerated people from the general inmate population, further restricting their movements, behavior and privileges. People are kept in jail cells for upwards of 22 hours a day.

In Texas, this process largely segregates those with specific gang affiliations, but also high escape-risk inmates, and those who have committed assaults and other disciplinary infractions.

“It is used judiciously,” said Amanda Hernandez, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman, of Restrictive housing — which is called Security Detention in Texas.

She also noted that the program has decreased in size 65% since 2007 when it was 9,186 to now sitting above 3,100.

Advocates said an estimated 300 men or around 10% of those living in restrictive housing are participating in the peaceful protest of their conditions and the practice of indefinite solitary confinement.

Last year, 16 men participated for multiple days in a hunger strike for the same reasons, with one man having to be hospitalized. The number has grown to at least 72 in the current strike, according to TDCJ.

Restrictive Housing has been used in Texas since at least the mid-80s, when an explosion in gang population and violence occurred. There were dozens of deaths in less than a two year period.

“The thought was, if you could separate people who are in gangs from the general population, it would create a safer environment,” said Michele Deitch, director of the LBJ Prison and Jail Lab at the University of Texas Law,in an interview with The Texas Standard.

“And in many ways that is the case,” she said. "However, it has created really what amounts to torture for people who are in that setting.”

“A vast majority of men placed in this housing without incident for an indefinite amount of time without a disciplinary infraction,” said documents sent to state legislators. The hunger strike was launched to coincide with the opening of the 88th Texas legislature on Tuesday.

In the packet, they described a lack of direct communication with loved ones, no access to GED programs, and poor conditions added to by staff shortages, in which men are able to shower only once a week, and in one unit men have had outside recreation time five times in three years.

TDCJ challenged the descriptions.

Numerous studies of solitary confinement have shown its use increases mental and physical health problems.

“Inmates are only assigned to those areas after an extensive review process and are periodically reviewed thereafter for reassignment,” Hernandez said.

TDCJ said the hunger strike is being directed by an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas member in federal prison. Independent advocate Brittany Robertson, who has been helping organize the effort from outside, said the description was false.

The process for known gang members to exit these solitary confinement conditions in Texas is to renounce their gang affiliations through the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation Program. Prisoners have said this program puts them in danger by making them “debrief” with law enforcement.

“In prison parlance, it would be snitching on the group and informing on the group's organizational structure, naming names, other members of the group. And that is highly risky,” said David Pyrooz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Outside organizers said they are mirroring protests in California a decade ago that led to hundreds participating — some lasting two months. A class-action lawsuit by those prisoners led to changes in the system — including a change from “status-based” or simply being a member of a restricted gang, to determining who is in restrictive housing based on behavior.

“Texas is among the few places left, when I surveyed prison systems, that would use status-based reasons for placing gang affiliates in restrictive housing,” Pyrooz explained.

TDCJ has not shown an interest in changing its policies.

“We will not give them free reign within our correctional facilities to recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises,” Hernandez said.

According to Pyrooz, a recent survey of jail administrators showed 70% saw the practice as highly effective while 20% saw it as somewhat effective, while evidence nationwide on the practices’ effectiveness is scant and far less clear.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org