By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
“Texas death row prisoners spend decades in solitary confinement. A lawsuit wants to end that “cruel” treatment.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Texas death row prisoners are suing the state, arguing it’s unconstitutional to hold them in solitary confinement for the entirety of their metered lives with minimal health care, no regard for their mental suffering and few avenues to seek legal help.
On death row, men are shut alone in small cells between 22 and 24 hours a day, often violating the state’s own policies on how often they are let out, the lawsuit says. On good days, they get to take a shower or go outside for an hour, alone in a cage. More often, due to short staffing, they spend their days sitting on a metal bed, listening to the echoing voices of other prisoners and guards through steel doors and concrete walls. If they roll up their thin mattresses to stand on, prisoners have said they can peek out the narrow window slits at the top of their cell walls to see the sky.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in a Houston federal court, claims the extended isolation deprives the prisoners of their right to access medical care and attorneys and causes severe physical and psychological harm.
Most of the 181 death-sentenced men in Texas have been on the Polunsky Unit’s notorious death row for years. About 75 have been in these conditions for more than two decades.
Texas’ male death row prisoners have been housed in isolation since 1999, soon after an infamous prison break by death-sentenced men. Before then, condemned prisoners could work, participate in educational programming and at times visit with their loved ones without a pane of glass between them.
Now, prisoners’ attorneys argue, death row conditions are “unjustifiably severe.” The plaintiffs have all been convicted of capital murder, the only offense in Texas that can carry a death sentence.
A growing body of psychiatric studies reports solitary confinement can cause serious lasting damage, especially to those with existing mental illnesses.
At least eight death row prisoners have died by suicide in the last 20 years, according to prison records. The most recent suicide was on Saturday, when Terence Andrus, 34, was discovered unresponsive after hanging himself in his cramped cell. He had been on death row a decade, convicted of killing two people in Fort Bend County during an unsuccessful carjacking attempt in 2008.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the pending litigation. Other non-death-sentenced prisoners who have been indefinitely held in solitary confinement solely because they are gang members began a hunger strike this month to protest Texas’ isolating practices, as well.
TDCJ has not wavered in its stance in that case. A spokesperson reported Thursday only one man was still starving himself without pause after 17 days; others have taken food breaks and started the strike again.
Thursday’s lawsuit was brought by four condemned prisoners, who are asking that the court expand it to cover the entire population of Polunsky’s death row. The men have been on death row in solitary confinement from seven to 22 years, with two men having been on the less-restrictive death row prior to the escape attempt. The seven women sentenced to death in Texas are housed in another prison.
The men are represented by the law firm Hogan Lovells, which was also involved in the court challenge that changed Louisiana death row conditions in 2021. After years of litigation, Louisiana agreed to give condemned prisoners communal lunches, as well as four hours each day to socialize, shower, use the phone and send emails. The prisoners also get five hours a week in an outdoor exercise yard and are able to touch their loved ones during visits.
The law firm’s racial justice team set its eyes on Texas next.
“Texas death row conditions have been described as the most inhumane in the country, and we obviously have a large death row population,” said Catherine Bratic, a Houston attorney with the firm.
In Texas, the prisoners complain the isolating conditions on death row violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The complaint states that death-sentenced men are put in solitary solely based on their sentence, not because of any individual consideration of their crime or prison behavior.
“That Plaintiffs and Class Members have been sentenced to death does not alone justify the harmful and arbitrary conditions of their confinement compared to other prisoners held in high security at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, many of whom have been convicted of similar or even more violent crimes,” the complaint reads.
The prisoners also argue that death row does not allow them proper access to their attorneys.
Though prisoners have the right to confidential conversations with their attorneys, death row prisoners are typically not allowed visits except over phones through a film of Plexiglas. The attorneys said two private rooms for attorney visits are rarely available, and their own visits were conducted in the general visitation room with dozens of other prisoners, family members and prison employees.
“The threat of recording looms over every privileged conversation, as signs in the visitation area warn that conversations are actively monitored and recorded by TDCJ,” the complaint alleged.
The lawsuit, which has not yet been assigned to a federal judge, requests a jury trial on its claims.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/26/texas-death-row-solitary-lawsuit/.
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