‘We Are Humans Back Here’: As Texas Hunger Strike Wanes, Prisoners Speak Out Against Solitary Confinement
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.
“I’ve been in solitary since 2004 over a label. I’ve seen good friends lose their minds back here. I’ve seen countless people take their lives. we are humans back here. we have no way to try and change.no education, drug treatment, anger management, nothing. I can’t even explain the way it feels to just be forgot about by our government. its more mentally damaging then anything.”
“I do want to make it very clear I’m not at no political war with the system or anything like that. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but I believe in the law. I also understand that at one time there was a need to lock gangs up. however, times have changed, plus we now know the long term effects solitary has on people from countless investigations and study’s done. the world has evolved yet Texas prisons still remain the same.”
“This is not about us trying to run the prison, its about humanity. its about us being treated as humans and given a chance to prove we deserve to be treated as such.”
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.
“I’ve been locked up for close to 17 years now with 15 plus of those years spent in Segregation and well its been a content struggle that’s for sure with no end in sight. So after so many years of going by this unwritten code we used to go by here about just not complaining and just staying quiet and not letting this people here think they were getting the upper hand on us, well it just got to the point were I was like man why am I continuing to put up with this? Why am I not speaking out on all this?”
“I do understand that I was sent here for something I did and I’ve taken full responsibility for it and am truly sorry for what I did but I’ve bee paying my debt to society.”
“I’ve seen good inmates loose it, I’ve seen people kill themselves and I’ve seen this Correctional Officers have to cut down a inmate that hanged himself. And all this years this people here have done nothing to even try to help”
“this is a Psych Patient making factory”
“Eventually a lot of this dudes will be realese from here and just imagine a ex inmate with serious mental issues caused by TDCJ trying to fiction out there? Its a recipe for failure and for maybe such inmate causing something even worst, and all cause this Prison System is failing everyone.”
“I was young wild and stupid when I did what I did,but am a grown man now a more mature man with way better knowledge about what’s good for me and what’s not,all I want is a second chance of living a life free.But also imagine this,this people have given me nothing to better myself.”
“They only provide one other option to us all that want to get out of Segregation, and that’s to make us degrade ourselves even more, to put ourselves in danger to be tagged as snitches. So that’s why none of us goes thru that so called program they got (GRAD).”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/30/texas-prisons-hunger-strike-letters/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.