By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune
““We are humans back here”: As Texas hunger strike wanes, prisoners speak out against solitary confinement” 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.
Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions.
In solitary confinement, Texas prisoners have watched through narrow cell windows as their peers lose grip on reality. Many have witnessed men take their own lives.
With thousands kept in the dangerously isolating conditions, often for years or decades, a group of men decided last year they wanted to make their voices heard. On Jan. 10, as many as 300 men at prisons across the state had signed on to begin a hunger strike to protest Texas’ solitary confinement practices.
The prisoners hoped their movement would force state officials to reexamine Texas’ policy of placing people in solitary — and keeping them there indefinitely — solely because they are members of a prison gang.
In a proposal sent last year to prison officials and state lawmakers, the men asked instead for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to put people in solitary for dangerous or assaultive behavior, not for a status label. It is unfair, they argued, to keep men in isolation for gang membership if they have otherwise not broken any prison rules.
TDCJ has not bent, with spokesperson Amanda Hernandez saying the agency will not allow gang members to have free rein of the prisons to recruit and organize.
As the days went by, the number of men participating in the hunger strike quickly tapered off. Three days into the protest, TDCJ reported 72 men were refusing food. A week later, the number dropped to 38.
On Monday at lunch, three weeks after men stopped eating to draw attention to their treatment, the last man who had continuously refused food for the entirety of the strike began to willingly eat again, according to TDCJ.
Nearly 20 other men had not eaten for three or more days, the prison reported, but they had at one point paused to eat in the three weeks prior. Four people have required intravenous infusions during the strike, Hernandez said Monday.
The prison system has clamped down on communication with prisoners participating in the hunger strike. The agency is refusing all media interview requests with men, according to Hernandez, citing security concerns.
“By allowing the interviews, we feel we are allowing them to organize and further cause disruption,” she said.
Instead, prisoners can communicate only through a lagging prison mail system. In these excerpts from emailed messages sent via prison tablets to The Texas Tribune, two men described why they were starving themselves. Here, verbatim, are their words:
Joshua Allen Sweeting, 42, is housed at the Coffield Unit. He has been in and out of prison since 2000, most recently serving an eight-year sentence for an attempted home burglary, according to prison records. He is set for release in 2025 at the latest.
Jose Guadalupe Lucio, 45, is housed at the Ferguson Unit. He is serving a 25-year sentence for murder, according to prison records. He is set for release in 2033 at the latest.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/30/texas-prisons-hunger-strike-letters/.
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