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Texas prison hunger strike over solitary confinement enters third week

An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas, in 2014.
Adrees Latif
An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas, in 2014.

A hunger strike in Texas prisons entered its third week as men refused food to protest their living conditions.

The men live in solitary confinement, oftentimes due to being members of prison gangs, rather than any rule infraction.

The state houses 3,100 men in solitary. They are often held for indefinite amounts of time — lasting years or more. As many as 500 of the men have been in solitary for more than a decade.

The men are seeking release from the “inhumane treatment and conditions” of solitary confinement, spending 22 hours a day in a cell, and the opportunity to prove they aren't a threat to other inmates.

Numerous studies have highlighted the mental and physical toll that isolation takes on people, with one study comparing it to physical torture.

One inmate described a typical day.

“There’s not much to it,” he wrote to TPR. “You have to keep in mind these cells are small, 4’x10’.”

After waking up at 6 a.m. and brushing his teeth, the inmate says he starts walking.

“Three steps, turn, three steps. Back and forth. I pace like that until lunch at 10 a.m.,” he said.

After lunch, he paces for another hour — and then reads or draws. After a few hours, he goes back to pacing until 4 p.m. He eats dinner and then reads or writes letters before pacing again until 10 p.m. He rinses off in the sink “unless they actually run showers” then reads until he falls asleep.

Since the strike began, this inmate has broken his fast once but rejoined the strike.

“I’ve lost 12 lbs. My pulse was high and kidneys enlarged. Other than that, I’m okay, just dizzy,” he said.

He has continued because the alternative of continuing in solitary is unacceptable.

“The argument isn't about my conviction,” said another inmate in solitary, who conceded he had put himself in prison through his crimes. “It’s about the treatment, about the abuse.”

He compared their living conditions to that of dogs in kennels, saying dogs are treated better because — among other things — kennels are air conditioned. The majority of Texas prisons are not.

Also, the pandemic-fueled staffing issues throughout TDCJ have impacted these men dramatically. In a letter to legislators, they said access to showers and to the outdoors has been severely reduced.

“Nothing is being done to correct this problem,” said the inmate. “Other than just refusing our showers, recreation, it’s even hard to get medical attention. At times the inmates have to start banging on the doors in order to get the officers or medical attention.”

Multiple inmates have complained about the inability for them to access educational resources or to accrue “good time” — behavior-based credit towards their sentence.

Two-dozen men continue to refuse food inside the prisons, down 14 from the previous week, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The strikers are across five prisons.

This is the second hunger strike in a 16 month period. At the same point in the last strike, just six men were still refusing to eat, according to reports.

Thus far no medical intervention has been needed, TDCJ said Monday, adding that 60% of current strikers had broken their fast at one point or another. The agency defines a hunger strike as those who have gone at least three days without food. TDCJ is continuing to monitor the situation, with medical personnel weighing inmates on strike and taking vitals.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed that dozens of prisoners are refusing to eat. Organizers said they want an end to indefinite solitary confinement.

The state has attributed the strike’s organization to an outside actor in federal detention who is a member of the Aryan brotherhood. TDCJ confirmed that members of multiple prison gangs are participating in the strike.

It isn’t clear what progress has been made in dealing with the strikers. Outside advocate Brittany Robertson has said the state indicated it was willing to allow additional privileges for inmates at some units, but nothing has been given in writing.

Inmates continue to push for a step down program where they are gradually given additional privileges and ultimately reincorporated into the prison population. They made recommendations of penalties for inmates who could find themselves back in solitary if they didn’t behave.

The state has said it will not bend to prison gangs. A spokesman said it considers them too dangerous to “give free reign” to recruit new members.

“If known prison gang members in state custody do not like their current confinement conditions, they are free to renounce their gang, and we will offer them a pathway back into general population,” said TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez in an email.

The programs she described have been criticized by inmates and researchers for putting men at physical risk, due to the requirement to “snitch” on the organization. The efficacy of the programs has also been questioned.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear path forward. Prison administrators are overwhelmingly supportive of administrative segregation to maintain order and safety while research is spotty on if it works.

So prisoners continue to refuse food, losing weight, and continuing to question the use of any of this.

“Most of us back here will be released to society one day,” one inmate wrote to TPR “With nothing positive to show for it: no trades, education, drug treatment, Nothing. How is that good for Texas?”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org