Texas prisoners protesting with hunger strike

Texas prisoners protesting with hunger strike

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

January 13, 2023

It’s been more than three days since Texas inmates across the state began a hunger strike to protest indefinite confinement, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has confirmed that at least 72 people are still on hunger strike.

An activist working with the protesting men believes the number is closer to 120, of the more than 300 she estimated began refusing food on Tuesday. Striking inmates are medically evaluated daily, and doctors may force-feed an inmate whose condition worsens, according to jail spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez.

“Our protest will remain peaceful and inclusive of all races and religions to improve conditions for ALL within the boundaries of TDCJ,” read a press release from inmates Friday, compiled by independent activist Brittany Robertson from messages that she took from six strike men in. three prisons.

Thousands of prisoners are held in solitary confinement in Texas. As of November, more than 500 prisoners had been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

Under TDCJ policy, inmates are assigned to solitary confinement if they are flight risks, have committed violent assaults or serious infractions in prison, or are confirmed members of dangerous prison gangs. The hunger strike targets the latter.

Months before the strike, the hungry men sent a proposal to prison officials and state lawmakers to change the Texas practice of placing — and holding — inmates in solitary because they are affiliated with a gang, even if they have good behavior behind bars. The proposal called for the prison system to move from “gang status” to “behavior-based” solitary placement and provide clear guidelines and consistent timelines for how and when people would be released from solitary.

The proposal is similar to a settlement agreement reached in federal court in 2015 against California’s solitary confinement practices. After a large-scale, two-month hunger strike in 2013 and years of inmate-led lawsuits, California agreed to no longer place people in solitary based solely on their gang status, nor to hold them in isolation for an indefinite period of time.

Prison gangs, often racially organized, are extremely dangerous and cause much of the violence behind bars, according to Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. However, she said the prisoners’ demands are reasonable, especially since solitary confinement beyond 15 days is considered torture by international human rights standards.

“We’re not talking about days, we’re talking about years and it’s indefinite,” she said last week as inmates prepared to strike.

So far, TDCJ has given no indication that it will budge. Hernandez said agency intelligence traced the strike’s origins to an order from a member of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood in federal prison.

“If known prison gang members in state custody do not like their current conditions of confinement, they are free to renounce their gang and we will provide them with a pathway back into the general population,” Hernandez said in an email Friday. “However, we will not give them free reign within our correctional facilities to recruit new members and attempt to continue their criminal enterprises.”

Robertson rejected the TDCJ’s claim, countering that many, if not most, of the men on strike are members of the Mexican Mafia or other gangs. They would not take orders from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, she said.

“These men have spent years living together and have discovered that if they come together in a cause, to want something better for all of their members, they can all be rehabilitated and move on,” she said in a text on Friday.

The inmates and Deitch also argued that the re-entry program for confirmed gang members to give up their gangs and return to the general prison population, Hernandez noted, could take years to roll out. She may also ask inmates to incriminate themselves or steal from other gang members, they said, keeping many away from her.

The inmates plan to continue the strike through the holiday weekend unless prison officials meet with a committee of various gang members who hope to enter into negotiations, according to the inmates’ press release.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a full list of them here.

“More than 70 Texas inmates on 3-day hunger strike protesting harsh solitary confinement practices” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs — and engages with — Texans. – on public policy, politics, government and nationwide affairs.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/13/texas-prison-hunger-strike-solitary/ .

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, member-supported newsroom that informs and engages Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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