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Texas death-row inmates sue state over solitary confinement

Texas Prison
Richard Carson
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.

Male death-row inmates are suing the state of Texas for keeping them in solitary confinement. The lawsuit seeks to have long-term solitary confinement declared unconstitutional.

Men in solitary — or what the state calls “Secure Detention” — are kept in cells for more than 22 hours a day and have limited, if any, access to outside recreation, medical visits, and showers. Many of these restrictions violate the state’s own policies, the lawsuit argued.

The lawsuit cited numerous bodies that call indefinite solitary confinement “inhumane,” including the United Nations and the National Commission of Correctional Health Care.

A prisoner hunger strike was launched earlier this month and expects to affect 14 state prisons before it ends.

The state began automatically holding male death-row inmates in solitary confinement around 2000 after its Allan B. Polunsky Unit opened in Livingston. Now, 168 men reside in the facility in solitary. Prior to that, each man was assessed on a case by case basis on the need for its use.

“This policy addresses no legitimate security or penological need and serves no purpose but to heighten the mental anguish to which Plaintiffs and Class Members are subjected,” said the lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in the Southern District of Texas.

Mark Robertson has been on death row for more than 30 years. He has been held in solitary for 22 of them. The lawsuit said since being restricted to solitary he has experienced significant weight gain, and his cardiac health has suffered because he can't exercise.

Robertson was convicted for the 1989 murder of 81-year-old Edna Brau and her 19-year-old grandson, Sean Hill. His execution was stayed in 2019 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals over allegations of racial discrimination in jury selection.

Death Row inmate Larry Swearingen in the Polunsky Unit prison in Livingston Texas
David Martin Davies
An inmate in Polunsky unit waits to speak with a visitor. This is the area lawyers are often forced to use to discuss legal strategy with inmates as well

George Curry has been in solitary for seven years and has also suffered from deteriorating health. The man who has suffered from chronic liver issues has been limited to receiving care for the disorder once a year, down from quarterly, due to staffing in the unit.

“He experiences paranoia, anxiety, and he suffers from depression as a result of confinement,” the lawsuit said.

In addition to their physical and mental health, the lawsuit said Texas is violating its policies related to access to counsel, making attorney consultations take place in congregant areas rather than in private ones.

“it is unsurprising that Plaintiffs feel they are unable to speak freely with their counsel,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged further violations through illegal screening of legal communications, slow or non-delivery of legal documents, as well as access to law materials and law libraries on site.

The lawsuit coincided with a weeks-old hunger strike across state prisons over solitary-confinement. State officials said Thursday that the total number of men involved has dropped to nine. When it began, 72 were taking part.

A prison reform advocate helping the inmates has challenged the numbers and said that it is still in the 20s and that more inmates are joining as part of a strategy to extend the strike.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive