A hunger strike in Texas jails entered its third week as men refused to eat to protest their living conditions.
The men live in solitary confinement, often due to their membership in prison gangs rather than a rule violation.
The state houses 3,100 men in solitary confinement. They are often held indefinitely – for years or more. Up to 500 of the men have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.
The men are seeking release from the “inhuman treatment and conditions” of solitary confinement, spending 22 hours a day in a cell, and a chance to prove they pose no threat to other inmates.
Numerous studies have highlighted the psychological and physical toll isolation takes on people, with one study comparing it to physical torture.
A prisoner described a typical day.
“Not much to it,” he wrote to TPR. “You have to keep in mind that these cells are small, 4’x10′.”
After waking up at 6 a.m. and brushing his teeth, the inmate says he started walking.
“Three steps, turn around, three steps. Back and forth. I walk like this until lunch at 10 a.m.,” he said.
After lunch he paces for another hour – and then reads or draws. After a few hours he’s pacing again until 4pm. He eats dinner and reads or writes letters before pacing again until 10pm. He rinses off in the sink, “unless it’s actually a shower,” then reads until he falls asleep.
Since the strike began, this prisoner has broken his fast once, but rejoined the strike.
“I’ve lost 12 pounds. My pulse was high and my kidneys enlarged. Otherwise I’m fine, just dizzy,” he said.
He continued because the alternative of remaining in solitary confinement is not acceptable.
“The dispute is not about my conviction,” said another inmate in solitary confinement, who admitted his crimes got him into prison. “It’s about the treatment, about the abuse.”
He compared their living conditions to those of dogs in kennels and said dogs are treated better because – among other things – kennels are air-conditioned. The majority of Texas prisons are not.
The pandemic-related staffing issues throughout TDCJ have also hit these men dramatically. In a letter to lawmakers, they said access to showers and the outdoors had been severely restricted.
“Nothing is being done to address this issue,” the inmate said. “Besides refusing our showers and rest, it’s even difficult to get medical help. Sometimes the inmates have to start knocking on the doors to get the officers or medical help.”
Several inmates have complained about not being able to access educational resources or collect “good time” — behavior-based credit toward their sentence.
According to the Texas Department of Justice, two dozen men in prisons continue to refuse food, down 14 from the previous week. The strikers are in five jails.
This is the second hunger strike in 16 months. At the same time as the last strike, only six men were reportedly refusing to eat.
No medical intervention has been required so far, TDCJ said Monday, adding that 60% of current strikers have broken their fast at one point or another. The agency defines a hunger strike as those who have gone at least three days without food. TDCJ continues to monitor the situation, with medical staff weighing striking inmates and taking vital signs.
The Texas Department of Justice confirmed that dozens of prisoners are refusing to eat. Organizers said they wanted an end to indefinite solitary confinement.
The state has credited the organization of the strike to an outside actor in federal custody who is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. TDCJ confirmed that members of several prison gangs are taking part in the strike.
It is not clear what progress has been made in dealing with the strikers. Outside counsel Brittany Robertson said the state had said it was willing to give inmates additional privileges in some units, but nothing was given in writing.
Inmates continue to push for a step-down program in which they are gradually granted additional privileges and eventually reintegrated into the prison population. They made penal recommendations for inmates who could find themselves back in solitary confinement if they misbehaved.
The state has said it will not bow to prison gangs. A spokesman said they felt it was too dangerous to “give a free hand” to recruit new members.
“If known prison gang members in state custody do not like their current prison conditions, they are free to disband their gang and we will offer them a route back into the general population,” TDCJ spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez said in an email.
The programs she described have been criticized by inmates and researchers for putting men at physical risk as they are required to “spy” on the organization. The effectiveness of the programs has also been questioned.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear way forward. Prison administrations overwhelmingly support administrative separation to maintain order and security, while research is patchy as to whether it works.
So prisoners continue to refuse food, lose weight, and continue to question the use of any of it.
“Most of us back here will one day be released into society,” one inmate wrote to TPR, “with nothing positive to show for it: no trade, no education, no drug treatment, nothing. How good is that for Texas?”