Dozens of Texas prisoners are nearly a week into a hunger strike over what they call the state’s harsh solitary confinement policy.
At least 72 prisoners have not eaten as of last Friday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement to the Texas Tribune.
An activist associated with the movement told the outlet that the number is closer to 120, which is down from the roughly 300 that started out participating in the protest on Jan. 10.
The hunger strike is being carried out in opposition to the TDCJ’s policy of putting members of prison gangs into solitary confinement. Gang members want solitary confinement to be behavior-based, not status-based, and began their strike on the opening day of Texas’ legislative session in hopes of convincing lawmakers to do something about the policy.
Texas started the policy — which corrections officials call “Restrictive Housing” — in the mid-1980s when gang violence surged as prison populations grew, according to Texas Public Radio.
“The thought was, if you could separate people who are in gangs from the general population, it would create a safer environment,” Michele Deitch, the director of the LBJ Prison and Jail Lab at the University of Texas Law, told The Texas Standard.
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“In many ways that is the case,” she continued. “However, it has created really what amounts to torture for people who are in that setting.”
Over 3,100 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the Lone Star state, down from over 9,100 in 2007, according to the TDCJ. More than 500 have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.
The state allows gang members to leave solitary confinement when they disassociate from the gang.
“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,” Amanda Hernandez, a spokesperson for the TDCJ, told the Texas Tribune on Friday. “We will not, however, give them free reign within our correctional facilities to recruit new members and try to continue their criminal enterprises.”
But Ms. Deitch and others have said that the reentry program for gang members can take years to get into, and would require the gangsters to share information about the gang with law enforcement.
“In prison parlance, it would be snitching on the group and informing on the group’s organizational structure, naming names, other members of the group. And that is highly risky,” David Pyrooz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Texas Public Radio.
The TDCJ said that prisoners on strike are evaluated each day, and doctors have authorization to force-feed a prisoner whose condition worsens.
Prison officials said that the strike is being organized by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, but an activist associated with the movement said that members of the Mexican Mafia are mainly behind the hunger strike.
Sixteen prisoners held a similar demonstration last year over the span of multiple days. One man was hospitalized as a result of that hunger strike.