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Death row hunger strike gets outside support

Published Nov 12, 2006 10:51 PM

Protesters from Houston and Austin held a spirited demonstration in front of the Polunsky Prison Unit here on Nov. 4. Families arriving for or leaving from visits as well as cars traveling on the highway honked their horns in support.

Placards supported a hunger strike against conditions on death row that was in its fifth week.

Told by a prison official to move across the street, members of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement from Houston said they would not move and that the warden couldn’t tell them where to stand during a legal protest.

Activists with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in Austin also participated in the protest.

Four families visiting relatives in prison pulled off the highway and joined the protest. One Latina who had driven all the way from Brownsville on the U.S./Mexico border with her daughter told demonstrators it was hard having her nephew on death row and talked about the bad conditions.

She said the thought that Texas could kill her sister’s son was sometimes too much for her to bear. Through tears she explained that she couldn’t even take advantage of an extra two hours of visiting time for those who travel such long distances because she had to be at work very early the next morning. She drives eight hours each way for a two-hour visit.

The Polunksy Unit houses the 380 men on Texas’ death row. They are held in solitary confinement 23 hours or more each day, with no chance of ever upgrading their status. This super-max, super segregation unit is responsible for many death row suicides and attempted suicides, severe mental illnesses, and a number of men giving up appeals.

The cells have solid steel doors and prisoners are taken to shower or recreation alone. They eat alone in their single-person cell. No radios, televisions or newspapers are provided. Radios can be purchased only by those on the top disciplinary level.

Prisoners cannot even write letters and mail them to their friends. There are no religious services and they are not allowed to work at a prison job.

The isolation is torture and is causing serious mental problems.

The hunger strike was begun by Steven Woods, Justen Hall, Richard Cobb, Travis Runnels, Kevin Watts and Stephen Moody.

Woods wrote at the beginning of the strike about the abuses of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib: “You look overseas and ask yourselves, ‘How can good, solid citizens behave like that?’ You wonder, ‘Where did that monster come from?’ The question isn’t very hard to answer. That kind of abuse isn’t anything new. It’s been happening here on Amerikkkan soil for decades. And while it’s true that Amerikkkan prisoners don’t suffer the depth of those held hostage by Bush and Co. here in Texas, on death row, we are forced to endure some of the harshest and most inhumane treatment imaginable.”

Other death row prisoners who have joined the hunger strike include Kenneth Foster and Gabriel Gonzales with the DRIVE organization, Carlton Turner, Patrick Bryan Knight and John Rubio.

When Turner joined the hunger strike on Oct. 23, he wrote to friends that he was protesting the death penalty and “the horrid conditions that Death Row prisoners endure daily... I’m tired of the deprivation. I’m tired of accepting spoiled and undercooked food. Change must come!”

Woods wrote, “It’s a shame that we have to starve ourselves to be treated decently. We’re hoping we don’t have to starve to death, but we cannot allow ourselves to be denied our basic human rights. We cannot, we will not live like this any longer.”

For more information, see www.anarchyinchains.com, www.drivemovement.moonfruit.com, www.freerobwill.org and www.freekenneth.com.