Scores of Texas prisoners have entered the second week of a hunger strike in protest at being kept indefinitely in solitary confinement, a form of incarceration in the US that human rights groups have denounced as torture.
Inmates across the Texas prison system have been refusing food since 10 January in an organized outcry against being held in isolation in some cases for decades. Estimates of the numbers of prisoners involved differ. The Texas department of criminal justice (TDCJ) puts it at 72, but outside advocates liaising with the strikers say it is at least 138.
In Texas, solitary confinement is used as a means of control designed largely to prevent violence between prisoners. The idea is to segregate those involved in prison gangs, or “security threat groups” as they are called, which include the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican mafia.
Inmates are assessed for signs of gang membership such as tattoos and other indicators, and if they are labelled with a gang status are then placed alone in a cell indefinitely, regardless of any behavioral violations or wrongdoing. The indeterminate length of a solitary term in Texas has made the state a national leader in the use of this extreme form of lock-up over prolonged periods.
The state currently has more than 3,000 inmates in “restrictive housing”, as solitary is known. Of those, more than 500 have been isolated for at least 10 years and 138 for at least 20 years.
Brittany Robertson, an outside representative for the hunger strikers, told the Guardian that conditions in the solitary cell were brutal. “Most units don’t allow calls, no contact visits, no oversight or effective grievance process. Mail is delayed up to a month, there are staffing shortages and with no security checks there are a lot of suicides.”
She added that the prisoners who had joined the protest “truly feel this is in the best interest of all, including the prison employees who are suffering appalling conditions as well”.
Robertson has collated a set of official complaints from solitary prisoners. One inmate reported that he had an infected abscess on his back that was going untreated; a Black prisoner complained that African American in solitary were being singled out for “physical and psychological abuse”; and a third offender requested being transferred out of the solitary unit because “my life is in danger here”.
In a separate report, a prisoner recorded what privileges he was afforded through in August 2022. He was only allowed to make a phone call to a loved one once in the month, and that was at 12.39am in the early hours.
As for out-of-cell time, he was granted a brief recreation period on only two days in the month. The rest of the time he spent in his isolation cell.
The striking prisoners have modeled their demands on California where prisoners staged a hunger strike in 2013. Two years later the California inmates successfully litigated a federal settlement which ended the use of solitary in the state based on gang status alone.
The Texas hunger strikers prepared written complaints and demands which they presented to the prison authorities three months before they started the current action. In it they said that they were suffering “deprivations of our senses, inhumane treatment and conditions, and long-term mental, physical and emotional harm which endure long after release and cannot be undone”.
Their main demand is that Texas moves from the current system of putting prisoners indefinitely into solitary based on their gang status to a “behavioral based system to address the behavior of individuals – only those who engage in serious rule violations should be placed in restrictive housing”.
They add: “Under no circumstances will any prisoner remain in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.”
Savannah Kumar, staff attorney of the ACLU of Texas, said that the prisoners’ proposals were “clear, common-sense measures consistent with the US constitution. In the face of draconian and torturous treatment, the people on hunger strike are asking just for reasonable reforms that have already been implemented elsewhere.”
The latest data collated by the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) and the Arthur Liman Center at Yale law school estimates that there were between 41,000 and 48,000 in isolation in US prison cells in July 2021. The CLA-Liman report recorded that Texas had by far the largest number of prisoners who had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, with only Alabama and the federal Bureau of Prisons coming anywhere close.
A plethora of human rights groups have categorized prolonged solitary confinement as a form of torture. In 2011, a special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council concluded that as short a timeframe as 15 days in solitary can amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture”.
The psychological dangers of prolonged solitary confinement have long been known. “There’s plenty of research showing that after just a few days people deteriorate mentally, can develop suicidal ideation and experience PTSD afterwards,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the LBJ School within the University of Texas.
Deitch described the Texas system, whereby prisoners with gang affiliations may be put into isolation indefinitely without having committed any violation, as “Kafkaesque”. “If one of the reasons you are placed in that status is because you have a tattoo, well, the tattoo isn’t going away while you’re in there so the idea that your case is periodically reviewed is meaningless.”
One way to get out of solitary is for inmates to renounce their gang membership through a program known as Grad (gang renouncement and disassociation process). To do so, however, exposes them to exceptional danger as they are marked as a snitch.
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 general population. We will not, however, give them free rein to recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises.”
The TDCJ said that only inmates “who are confirmed members of the most organized and dangerous prison gangs, inmates who are escape risks, and inmates who committed assaults or multiple other serious disciplinary offenses are incarcerated within [solitary]”. The statement said that the prison service had made “great strides” in decreasing the use of isolation, from a peak of 9,186 prisoners in 2007 to 3,172 last year.
The hunger strike continues.