'I'm not an animal:' Inmates endure a second week of hunger as they challenge prison living conditions
A hunger strike across Texas prisons entered its second week as an organizer alleged the prison was retaliating by interfering with the inmates' attempts to contact the outside world.
Dozens and possibly more than a hundred men continued to refuse food as a way to protest their living conditions. The inmates — all men — want an end to Secure Detention, where they are kept in solitary confinement for months or even years.
Men in as many as 14 units across the state spend as much as 22 hours per day in their cells. The practice has been called torture by prison researchers.
The numbers of those on strike continued to be disputed. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported the numbers have dropped from 72 to 51 since last Friday. One organizer on the outside said she confirmed 138 men were still striking, down from 300.
“We won't stop until our proposal is met. ... Wish us luck,” said Joshua Sweeting, an inmate in the Coffield unit — a two hour drive east from Waco.
He said he was in solitary because he was in a gang, not for any infraction. The practice of separating members of specific gangs into solitary confinement has been used since the mid 1980s in Texas. It was originally prompted by the proliferation of prison gangs and an explosion in prison violence.
Dozens of inmates in Texas prisons have been on a hunger strike for over a week in an effort to pressure prison officials to end the use of indefinite solitary confinement. @johnyangtv spoke with @paulflahive who has been covering the strike. https://t.co/x2wbLMyl6O pic.twitter.com/Xy2Q8pABTl— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) January 18, 2023
“I have no intention of stopping until something changes,” he wrote in another email through the state’s system “We just want a chance ... to be treated as humans. ... I'm in seg due to a label of a security threat, however I have zero cases due to any [gang] involvement ... (NONE) ... I’m no saint, have flaws, but I'm not an animal. …”
Sweeting’s offenses range from burglary to assault.
He said email messages started coming in later through the service — indeed, both messages were dated 5-6 days before they were received. He also indicated he had not received any messages from TPR, despite those messages being sent a week ago.
“So we’ve had our communications slowed down. I received a message today that was sent out on the 12 and then proceeded to get a message for every day since then,” said Brittany Roberston, an outside organizer of the strike.
Robertson said it was being done to quell the hunger strike by officials. She added that she had heard other nonparticipating inmates have not suffered the same delays in messages. She also said men participating had their rooms searched additional times, and personal property was missing. TPR could not independently confirm either claim.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied the claims, but confirmed each message sent to and from inmates is processed by a TDCJ worker.
“I do know there is an increase in volume of mail, thus it may be taking longer to review and process it all,” said Amanda Hernandez, director of communications for TDCJ.
Hernandez could not immediately produce data around message volume.
The state says it keeps 3,100 people in solitary — the lowest in 15 years and down from a high of 9,000 people.
The strike was timed to coincide with the opening of the legislative session. Organizers sent a proposal to change the system to end indefinite or permanent solitary confinement and instead replace it with one that gradually reintroduces inmates to general population. Inmates could then be judged on their behavior rather than their status as members of a restricted gang.
Texas is one of a handful of prison systems that still use the practice. California stopped a similar practice nearly a decade ago after a weeks-long hunger strike involving as many as 30,000 inmates and a class action lawsuit.
Many of the men in solitary will end up leaving prison at some point, and there are many concerns about the psychological damage often associated with the practice.
“You don't want to see people go directly from solitary confinement to the community,” said David Pyrooz, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder who researches prisons and gangs. “It generally shows that they're more likely to recidivate. They have more difficult transitions to the communities.”
Texas prison officials said these are violent and organized gangs that they can’t trust to have free reign of prisons to recruit.