The prisoners in the Texas prison system are entering week three of a hunger strike, protesting their conditions of solitary confinement. The conditions listed by the inmates and their advocates are 22-24 hours of isolated cell time and receiving rare outside recreation, rare cleanliness, rare visitation, and rare phone calls. Thousands of Texas prisoners are in solitary confinement.
Advocates for the prisoners are arguing that the conditions of solitary confinement are harmful and degrading to one’s mental health being kept in isolation without rehabilitative, and educational resources for decades. There have been outbursts and attempts of incidence just to get out of one cell. There have also been suicides as well. Experts on the issue note that prolonged isolation deteriorates one’s mental health after a period of days. Hundreds of Texas prisoners have been in there for decades. More generally, this prohibits sufficient rehabilitation for the inmates to be brought back into society. “We ask you to understand how important making this necessary change is not only to reduce recidivism, but to focus on our rehabilitation, human rights, and to help maintain a healthy and safe work environment for the employees,” wrote several of the protesting inmates.
The hunger is to force the hand of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to comply with reforms made by the inmates that aim to protect their Constitutional rights of humane treatment, prevention of self-incrimination, and due process. An advocate with Texas Prison Reform states that still close to 50 men are still on hunger strike. Lawmakers in the Texas Legislature are also taking note, with several bills filed to reform the policy of solitary confinement, reduce the length of time, study the psychological impacts of prolonged solitary confinement, and restrict solitary confinement for behavioral actions only.
Inmates are moved to solitary confinement in the Texas prison system based on several factors. The obvious of these are violent behavior, serious prison rule violations, and if the inmate is an escape risk. But also, regardless of behavior, inmates can be put in solitary confinement if they are allegedly, or confirmed, to be part of a prison gang. This is an effort to separate rival gangs to prevent violent outbreaks and present violence.
Inmates can work to get out of solitary confinement if they denounce their gang and, for lack of a better term, “snitch,” on them. However, advocates for the prisoners state that this is self-incriminating and will make the person a target for gang hostility.
The protest began last month with a group of prisoners filing a list of reforms to promote Constitutional rights and humane treatment of Texas prisoners while they are in TDCJ custody. They seek solitary confinement to be judged based on behavior and not gang affiliation.
Additionally, they are advocating for due process rights, fair hearings, fair criteria on how to earn their way out of solitary confinement, access to visitation, and rehabilitative and educational services.
Their requests build upon a similar event that happened in California several years ago that resulted in the case of Ashker v Government of California. In that case, the California inmates conducted a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement conditions that were shown. It was decided in the case that prolonged solitary confinement mentally and physically tortures inmates which violates the Eighth Amendment. The absence of meaningful solitary confinement review violates due process.
The inmates’ demands are listed here:
- The same settlement agreements of the California case Ashker v Government of California
- For the TDCJ to stop putting people in solitary confinement based on status, and move to place inmates in there based on behavior. The inmates ask for prisoners to only be put in restrictive housing based on committing acts of aggression in prison and serious rule violations in the prison.
- Prisoners are to be informed of the firm criteria for their release. Once a prisoner has met those criteria, they can be placed back into the prison’s general population.
- Actual security threats in a solitary confinement offense will go through a two-year step-down period after their term in solitary confinement is up. That can be reset or extended based on other violations.
- Those who refuse to participate in the step-down program, or who commit additional misconduct that is not that serious to be placed in solitary confinement, can move to a restrictive custody group. This group can still move around without restraints, and access to education, outside recreation, phone calls to family, and rehabilitative programs.
- Under no circumstances will prisoners be placed in solitary confinement for more than 10 years. Those who have been in there for five years without committing an offense in the past two years will be immediately released from solitary confinement.
- Change the state classification reviews to give prisoners due process rights. These need to be meaningful reviews that will allow those in solitary confinement to make a case based on behavior to be let out.
- A fair parol process that allows fair hearings, and does not hold a previous gang member’s status against them. To have meaningful opportunities to be heard at parole hearings and to challenge any inaccuracies in information given to the parol board
- Prisoner reps and the legal council meet with TDCJ officials on a regular basis to determine that these reforms are going through.
- Modify the TDCJ rule of release from solitary confinement for gang affiliations so that prisoners are not self-incriminating themselves (a violation of the 5th Amendment) and not becoming a target of gang violence for being labeled a “snitch.”
- Focuses on the conditions of those in solitary confinement
- Climate controlled facilities
- Provided with rehabilitative and education resources
- Must have criteria for them to earn their release from solitary confinement
- Entertainment and education content that is given to level one prisoners. 3-4 hour video calls a week to mirror visitation
- Television for level one prisoners either in cell or dayroom
- Access to video visitation programs
- Better access to phone calls
- Bring transparency to grievance procedures. The inmates will go through the grievance procedure against officials or policies, who in turn review the same grievances against them. There is also no disclosure of how grievances are addressed.
- TDCJ to assign prisoners to facilities near families
- Don’t remove visitation over minor infractions
- Visitation to include non-family members as well.
The inmates argue that the reforms they have requested will allow inmates to rehabilitate themselves before being released into public society. “When you take somebody who is struggling to cope with life and you keep them isolated, you don’t allow them outside, you don’t allow them to feel a hug, or to learn how to create something while being in such an isolated state, and then you let them out… What Texans need to know is that the lack of rehabilitation directly contributes to your crime,” said Brittney Robertson who has been in contact with the protesting prisoners.
The prisoners are also arguing on behalf of the prison staff for facing staffing shortages and greater employee strain. “Even the employees put in place to provide adequate care are suffering from mental health symptoms due to the treatment not only from superiors placing extra demands on job duties but prisoners from who are experiencing the long-term effects of solitary confinement,” wrote the inmates “We the incarcerated, our family, friends, activists, lawmakers, and community leaders know the Correctional Officers are tired of having staff reduced to better cover shortages, excessive overtime, of the security risks the strain Restrictive Housing creates.” The lack of oversight due to shortages only exuberates the issue of harm for the prisoners who are locked in their cells for longer periods of time.
TDCJ stands by its policy on solitary confinement. Over time, TDCJ notes that solitary confinement conditions have dropped 65% since 2007. A survey of jailers showed the majority see solitary confinement as effective.
They do not want to allow gang members to be able to recruit openly in the general prison population. To them, solitary confinement aids in preventing gang violence in the prison. In a statement, the TDCJ said that “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 the general population. We will not, however, give them free rein to recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises.”