Hunger strike in Texas prisons ends after seven weeks, for now
For the first time in seven weeks, no men in Texas’ solitary confinement program known as Security Detention were refusing food in protest. The last participants began eating Tuesday, according to officials at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The hunger strike was in protest over living conditions in, and the use of indefinite solitary confinement. About 3100 people in Texas prisons spend at least 22 hours a day in a room about the size of a parking spot. The United Nations has called for an end to the use of solitary, calling it torture.
The state has said it uses the practice to maintain order, especially among prison gang members who are often automatically added to solitary regardless of behavior. Prisoners said they wanted changes, including additional access to technology, showers, and the ability to accrue “good time” or a behavior-based reduction in sentence.
Ultimately, ending indefinite solitary confinement is the goal, but it isn’t clear what if any changes will occur as a result of the seven-week protest, but participants and organizers see their ability to raise the issue with the media and legislature as a victory. The hunger strike began on Jan. 10, coinciding with the Texas legislative session.
“What we've done has empowered the men, it has humanized them to the public and most importantly it has brought them together in ways their programming never could,” said Brittany Robertson, an outside organizer for the program Texas Prison Reform.
Other recent hunger strikes in Texas prisons garnered limited attention. This one brought continued national media attention as well as a handful of bills at the legislature to end or curtail the practice of keeping men in solitary.
One inmate, Robert Uvalle, was upbeat despite having to stop his hunger strike last month.
“I was getting kind of sick, right? That’s why I stopped at two weeks. I lost a lot of weight, like 20 pounds,” he told TexasLetters.org, which featured the stories of men in solitary confinement in Texas.
Robertson said men in some of the units were promised additional access to apps on state-owned tablets. She said in two units men were already given new access to educational and religious apps. Texas prison officials did not not confirm or comment on any concessions.
A prison official said the state made no concessions to prisoners over the hunger strike.
"Systemwide changes have been made in the available tablet applications that impacted restrictive housing; however, those changes were in progress before the hunger strike began," said Robert Hurst, TDCJ public information officer.
TDCJ officials have also denied any retaliation claims made by prisoners. Robertson has said prisons have experienced slow downs in physical mail and email correspondence that are likely retaliation for the strike, a charge the state denied. Robertson said she is working with lawyers to file grievances on the behalf of a handful of men with the aim of a possible lawsuit.
According to Robertson, who shared images of emails from one inmate verifying the claim, guards at one prison allegedly threatened to pull men from the The Gang Renouncement and Disassociation program if they didn’t eat. GRAD is the sole way for members of prison gangs to exit solitary confinement. More than half of men in solitary are in prison gangs.
Members of specific gangs — considered security threat groups — are automatically placed in solitary confinement, often for years. Many prison gang members in solitary confinement have no serious prison infractions, according to TDCJ data obtained by TPR. 500 men in Texas prisons have been held in solitary for more than 10 years.
Texas is one of only a handful of states that use this “status based” determination to populate solitary confinement. For more than 30 years, Texas has used solitary to stem spikes in violence that first erupted in the mid 80s largely driven by proliferating prison gangs.
Between 1984 and 1985, 52 men died in Texas prisons, an exponential increase. Nearly all of it was gang-related, according to a 1991 article in The Prison Journal.
Nearly 40 years later, prison researchers have questioned the effectiveness of solitary to stem violence. Colorado prisons banned its use. TDCJ has said it has no plans to change its practices.
Georgia and California were forced by federal courts to change how they use solitary last decade.
The U.S. Senate failed to pass the Solitary Confinement Reform Act in the last session. The bill would have limited the states from using solitary for 90 consecutive days.