AUSTIN (Nexstar) — At least two dozen Texas prisoners are 13 days into a hunger strike in protest against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s solitary confinement policies.

The strike began on Jan. 10, the first day of the Texas legislative session, with more than 70 prisoners participating. That number has since fallen to at least 24. Forty percent of the remaining strikers have participated for all 13 days, and the others “have been participating on and off,” according to TDCJ.

Brittany Robertson, an activist with Texas Prison Reform, has been in contact with the prisoners during the strike and believes TDCJ undercounted the participants. She said there could be as many as 50 prisoners participating as of Monday afternoon.

“One of the participants is being threatened with force-feeding,” she said. “He’s an older gentleman and he’s willing to sacrifice himself if it means the younger generations having opportunity.”

Robertson said the condition and duration of solitary confinement has severely harmed inmates’ physical and emotional health, led to suicide, and counteracted the criminal justice system’s own objectives.

A calendar from an inmate in solitary confinement at TDCJ’s Robertson Unit shows just seven days of recreation and 15 showers in January 2022. (Source: Brittany Robertson)

“When you take somebody who is struggling to cope with life and you keep them isolated, you don’t allow them outside, you don’t allow them to feel a hug, or to learn how to create something while being in such an isolated state, and then you let them out… What Texans need to know is that the lack of rehabilitation directly contributes to your crime,” she said.

One letter Robertson said she received from an inmate in TDCJ’s Ferguson Unit details staffing shortages leading to neglect.

“I’m writing because here at the Ferguson Unit they are claiming they are short of staff so they’ve been only showering Monday, Wednesday and Friday when it’s over 100 degrees everyday,” the inmate wrote. “Not only that, they’re also serving one or two meals by serving… paper sack which contains one peanut butter sandwich and one other sandwich. This has been going off and on for the last several weeks. We’ve had inmates falling out from the heat. We’re in desperate need of help over here and I’m sure we’re not the only unit here in Texas that is going through this, but this really needs to be addressed.”

A letter from an inmate in TDCJ’s Ferguson Unit details staffing shortages leading to minimal food and showering (Source: Brittany Robertson).

According to TDCJ, 3,141 are currently held in isolation. They report that the population in “security detention” has fallen by more than half in the last decade, since more than 7,000 inmates were held in isolation in 2013.

“Security detention accounts for less than 3% of the inmate population within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It is used judiciously,” TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez said.

The number of prisoners detained in isolation has dropped by 56 percent in the last decade. Source: TDCJ

TDCJ said “security detention” is meant to protect the safety of staff and other inmates and is reserved for “confirmed members of the most organized and dangerous prisons gangs, inmates who are escape risks, and inmates who committed assaults or multiple other serious disciplinary offenses are incarcerated within security detention.”

Some lawmakers are pushing to restrict the practice further this session. State Rep. Terry Meza (D-Irving) has filed a series of bills addressing the issue.

“The idea that someone is kept in solitary confinement for years is inconceivable to me,” she told KXAN. “It seems like inhumane punishment. What if any of us went and tried solitary confinement for one day? I don’t believe I could handle it.”

A sketch depicting the emotions of isolation by an inmate in TDCJ’s Ferguson Unit. (Source: Brittany Robertson)

HB 812 would limit isolation to three consecutive days for general misconduct and ten consecutive days for violent inmates. The Texas Tribune reports more than 500 inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

HB 480 would prevent TDCJ from placing an inmate in isolation based solely on their membership in a gang and require the department to determine whether the inmate presents an immediate threat to another. The department would also need to evaluate the inmate’s status weekly to determine whether lesser confinement is appropriate. Currently, TDCJ reviews inmates for reassignment to the general population “at least monthly.” Inmates also receive an “extensive review process” before they are isolated and may appeal the decision through a grievance process, Hernandez said.

HB 813 would direct state agencies to study the impacts of isolation on inmates’ physical and mental health and report the findings to state leaders by next December.

“I would hope that [TDCJ] would take into consideration the restrictive housing proposal and setting more firm guidelines for who can be in restrictive housing and for how long,” Robertson said. “I want the legislative session to understand that there’s men in isolation for 20 years, and they’ve not committed any additional crimes to gain that isolation, [it’s] merely affiliation based, and they’re still going to get out. So we’re hoping to see something put in place to provide them a chance to rehabilitation.”

TDCJ said the inmates participating in the strike are evaluated daily and none have required medical care so far.

“The agency is employing several strategies designed to reduce the security detention population consistent with the priority placed on safety and security,” Hernandez said. “One strategy is to offer diversion programming for inmates to keep them from entering security detention. Another is offering pathways out of restrictive housing for inmates through targeted programming. 

Robertson said she and the coalition of inmates are considering legal action if the strike is unsuccessful at changing policy.

“They’re not asking for freedom. They’re not even pleading innocence. What they’re saying is, ‘I’m in here for 20 years, I’d really like to have programming and to come out a better person.”