Advocates say 22 Texas inmates remain on hunger strike, but state disputes figure

Prisoners in Texas who have been held in solitary confinement in some cases for more than 20 years are on hunger strike to protest their brutal form of incarceration in the face of threats of retaliation from state authorities.

Outside advocates working with the protesting inmates say that, at their last count, 22 men continue to refuse food, and two of them have been on hunger strike since the start of the action on January 10.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) disputed those numbers, saying they only knew of six men on strike, none of whom had protested from the start.

The action is aimed at Texas’ widespread use of solitary confinement, in which male inmates are locked up in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day as a means, authorities say, to disrupt gangs. There are currently more than 3,000 prisoners being held in “restrictive housing,” as the state refers to solitary confinement cells, 138 of whom have been there for more than 20 years.

Texas has by far the largest number of prisoners held in solitary confinement for more than a decade of any state in the union. All death row inmates are also permanently isolated, and a class action lawsuit was filed last month calling for an end to this “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Messages sent by inmates participating in the hunger strike describe measures taken by prison staff to disrupt the action, including threats of reprisals and forced cell searches. Joshua Sweeting, a leading supporter of the protest who is currently refusing food at the Coffield Unit, a TDCJ prison in Anderson County, Texas, said his cell had been searched three times in the past few days.

“It is 5:31 a.m. They just ran to my cell with the gas mask on and took me out, they broke my cell,” she wrote in a message. He was held in a 2-foot by 2-foot vertical cage known as a “legal cell” for about an hour while the search was conducted.

“I came back and my property was all over my cell. They took my photos and some papers. I’m sure it’s a retaliation.”

Sweeting said there were 13 men on his wing who had returned to hunger strike after a break. He said the repeated searches of his cell and the destruction of his personal belongings “only strengthen my will. It also shows others exactly why we are protesting in the first place. We are simply asking to be heard and to do it in a very peaceful way.”

The organizers of the hunger strike have presented a series of demands to the prison authorities. As a priority, they want an end to the use of solitary confinement as a form of control against prison gangs in which anyone suspected of gang affiliation is isolated indefinitely.

Instead, the strikers say, solitary confinement should be reserved only for prisoners who are a real and present danger to themselves or others, based on their actual behavior.

In his messages, Sweeting said that the inmates were suspicious of the TDCJ’s intentions. “We have been lied to for so long that we cannot accept ‘promises,’” she said. “We just want them to keep their word.”

Brittany Robertson, an external representative for the hunger strikers, said the men wanted access to information that they are currently denied and that would prepare them for rehabilitation and return to society.

“They are asking for equal access to religious programming, job search apps, etc., so they can improve,” he said.

Robertson said that in addition to repeated cell searches, participants in the action were denied family visits and threatened with force-feeding.

Amanda Hernandez, the TDCJ’s director of communications, told The Guardian that “no sanctions or threats were used. No concessions have been made.” She said indefinite solitary confinement, or “security detention,” was judiciously used by the department “to enhance staff and inmate safety.”

Hernández added: “Prisoners who are confirmed members of the most organized and dangerous prison gangs” were incarcerated in isolation, along with prisoners who were at risk of flight and those who committed assaults or other serious crimes while inside.

Amite Dominick, founder of Texas Prisons Community Advocates, which works with inmates and their families, said the hunger strike was the result of extreme conditions that put inmates’ mental health and lives at risk. “These people are so desperate,” she said.

“They have been pleading and pleading, and no one has heard them cry. Texas is the most punitive state when it comes to solitary confinement. We are archaic in the way we treat human beings, and our legislators and authorities are doing nothing to fix it.”

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