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Texas prison hunger strikers barred from in-person interviews with journalists

A jail cell on death row, where prison inmates await execution, is seen at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in this September 29, 2010 handout photo. Texas is set to execute on March 19, 2014, Ray Jasper, an aspiring rap musician who was convicted of slitting the throat and stabbing to death a music studio owner in San Antonio so that he could rob him of equipment. The state, which executes more people than any other in the United States, plans to execute Jasper, 33, at 6 p.m. CDT (2300 GMT) by lethal injection at its death chamber in Huntsville. Picture taken September 29, 2010. REUTERS/Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW ENTERTAINMENT) ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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A prison cell in Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The state of Texas is refusing to allow journalists in-person interviews with inmates participating in a hunger strike at its prisons.

Officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice initially confirmed an interview at its Allred Unit in North Texas with Texas Public Radio, only to later reverse itself. The decision came after the warden of the unit had signed off on the visit.

TDCJ then denied two other interview requests at another facility due to “security concerns.”

One inmate at another unit confirmed he too had signed off on the request.

A subsequent conversation with state officials would reveal there was no security concern other than media attention being given to inmates striking to improve their living conditions.

“The visit is denied after consultation with CID [the Correctional Institutions Division],” said Amanda Hernandez, Director of communications for TDCJ.

“[Officials] may impose limitations on or set conditions for media access to the unit when, in the warden’s judgment, such media access would disrupt the safety and security of the unit or cause serious operational problems” reads the policy.

The protest is considered a disruption, said Hernandez, and they don’t want to give strikers a “platform” to grow the disruption.

The interpretation makes it impossible to conduct any kind of recorded interview with an inmate participating in the strike, to hear their experiences in their own words and voice, as inmates on “Secure Detention” aren’t allowed phone interviews.

Friends and family of the men continue to have access to striking inmates.

The number of men refusing food in protest of living conditions in state prisons has doubled since last Friday. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says 18 men are on hunger strike. The only inmate fasting since the strike began on the 10th stopped on Monday.

TDCJ considers anyone refusing food for more than three days to be on a hunger strike. A spokesperson for the agency said there were limited new inmates, and it was largely people who had been involved previously but broke their fast.

Media seeking interviews were referred to the state’s contracted electronic messaging system as well as the postal service. Many have complained about ballooning delays in the messaging system with some messages taking seven days from the time of being sent to being received.

The decision to deny media access to in-person interviews comes as claims of retaliation against the men on strike continue. Some have talked about increased room searches, and harassment.

One inmate told TPR that he had been told by a guard that protesters would be shipped to other facilities.

“Not sure if it is accurate or not. Could be a scare tactic,” the inmate said.

The state has denied it is intentionally slowing the delivery of the electronic mail, attributing it to large message volumes.

Striking prisoners have asked for changes to how the state uses its “Secure Detention” or solitary confinement with the aim of eliminating its indefinite use.

Several bodies have labeled the use of long-term solitary confinement “torture” due to the impact on physical and mental health.

Texas has used solitary confinement to segregate members of specific prison gangs or “security threat groups” from the general population for nearly 40 years. The practice followed spikes in prison violence in the mid-1980s. The number of people being held this way has declined 65% over the past 15 years to around 3100 men. The state is one of just a handful remaining using status-based determinants like gang membership.

TDCJ has expressed reluctance to change its system having previously stated the men in these groups are members of violent gangs and cannot be given free rein to recruit.

A handful of bills have been filed this legislative session targeting the practice for curtailment or for study.

This is the second hunger strike in 16 months inside Texas prisons over the same issue.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org