More than 70 Texas prisoners are 3 days into a hunger strike protesting harsh solitary confinement practices

Prisoners have refused food to protest practices that have kept more than 500 people in isolation for more than a decade.

click to enlarge Thousands of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in Texas. In November, more than 500 prisoners had been in isolation for more than a decade. - Texas Tribune / Martin do Nascimento
Texas Tribune / Martin do Nascimento
Thousands of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in Texas. In November, more than 500 prisoners had been in isolation for more than a decade.
It’s been more than three days since Texas prisoners across the state began a hunger strike to protest indefinite solitary confinement, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has confirmed at least 72 people are still starving themselves.

An activist working with the protesting men believes the number is closer to 120, down from the more than 300 she estimated began refusing food on Tuesday. Striking prisoners are medically evaluated daily, and doctors can force feed a prisoner whose condition worsens, according to prison spokesperson Amanda Hernandez.

“Our protest will remain peaceful and spans all races and religions to improve the conditions for ALL within the confines of the TDCJ,” read a press release from the prisoners Friday, compiled by independent activist Brittany Robertson from messages she received from six striking men at three prisons.

Thousands of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in Texas. In November, more than 500 prisoners had been in isolation for more than a decade.

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

Months before the strike, the starving men sent a proposal to prison officials and state lawmakers to change Texas’ practice of putting — and keeping — prisoners in solitary because they are affiliated with a gang, even if they have had good behavior behind bars. The proposal asked the prison system to shift from a “gang-status” solitary placement to “behavior-based,” and provide clear guidelines and firm timelines on how and when people in solitary would get out.

The proposal is similar to a settlement agreement reached in federal court in 2015 against California’s solitary confinement practices. After a wide-scale, two-month hunger strike in 2013 and years of prisoner-led litigation, California agreed to no longer place people in solitary based only on their gang status, nor keep them in isolation indefinitely.

Prison gangs, often organized by race, 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. Still, she said the prisoners’ demands are reasonable, especially as solitary confinement beyond 15 days is considered torture by international human rights standards.

“We’re talking not days, but years, and it’s indefinite,” she said last week as prisoners were readying themselves for the strike.

So far, TDCJ has not given any indication it will bend. Hernandez said agency intelligence pinned the origin of the strike to an order from an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas member in federal prison.

“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,” Hernandez said in an email Friday. “We will not, however, give them free reign within our correctional facilities to recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises.”

Robertson dismissed TDCJ’s claim, countering that many, if not the majority, of the men striking 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 found that if they join together in a cause, in order to want something better for all their members, they can all rehabilitate and move on,” she said in a text Friday.

Prisoners and Deitch also argued the reentry program for confirmed gang members to renounce their gangs and go back into the general prison population, as Hernandez noted, can take years to get into. It also can require prisoners to incriminate themselves or snitch on other gang members, they said, keeping many away from it.

The prisoners plan to continue striking through the holiday weekend unless prison officials meet with a committee of different gang members hoping to enter negotiations, according to the prisoners’ press release.

Disclosure: 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 complete list of them here.

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