Texas prisoners have been organizing for over a year to bring attention to an issue that is wounding and sometimes killing them: solitary confinement, which damages incarcerated people both mentally and physically.
Solitary confinement incites suicides and self-mutilation. It causes violent behavior. And when a person is entombed in a cell smaller than a parking place, it diminishes their vision, reduces their muscles and damages their bone structure.
On Jan. 10, as the Texas legislature began its biannual session, over 300 prisoners at a half dozen prisons around the state began a hunger strike to demand an end to the torture of solitary. The hunger strike lasted for over three weeks.
Prison spokesperson Amanda Hernandez reported to the Texas Tribune that four people required intravenous infusions during the strike. Hernandez also said the prison authorities have refused all media interviews with those who participated in the strike. “By allowing interviews, we feel we are allowing them to organize and further cause disruption,” she said.
Despite this censorship, several strikers managed to write to the Texas Tribune about the strike. Jose Guadalupe Lucio, incarcerated at Texas’ Ferguson Unit, wrote in part: “I’ve seen good inmates lose it; I’ve seen people kill themselves, and I’ve seen these Correctional Officers have to cut down an inmate that hanged himself. And all these years, these people here have done nothing to even try to help . . . this is a psych patient-making factory.” (Texas Tribune, Jan. 30)
There are well over 3,000 prisoners held in solitary in Texas. Every single person on Texas death row is in permanent solitary, in a cell with a solid steel door, not bars.
At least eight Texas death row prisoners have died by suicide in the last 20 years, according to the prison’s web page. The most recent suicide was on Jan. 21, when Terence Andrus, 34, was discovered unresponsive after hanging himself in his cramped cell.
Five days later on Jan. 25, attorneys for four men on death row filed a 45-page lawsuit in federal court in Houston that details that the mandated solitary confinement, lack of medical care and deprivation of attorney visits are all violations of the U.S. Constitution.
Class action from death row
Four men are named plaintiffs of the lawsuit: Tony Egbuna Ford, 49, who has spent 22 years in solitary; Mark Robertson, 54, 21 years in solitary; Rickey Cummings, 33, nine years; and George Curry, 55, seven years. They are asking the federal court to declare the lawsuit as a class action to represent all of the men on Texas death row.
Medical visits for prisoners sentenced to death are sporadic. Mental and physical health providers are often forced to converse with their patients openly on the row, where other prisoners and prison guards can easily overhear conversations regarding private mental and physical health concerns. Legal visits can take weeks to schedule and occur in a public setting, where their conversations are also easily overheard by other visitors, other prisoners and by guards.
Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement activists have searched for decades to find attorneys or legal organizations who would sue the prison system to stop the horrors of indefinite solitary confinement. They could not find them. Finally, an international law firm based in London with an office in Houston, Hogan Lovells, has taken on the challenge.
Hogan Lovells partner Pieter Van Tol said: “The conditions on death row in Texas have been characterized as some of the most brutal death row conditions in the country. The plaintiffs in this case are seeking relief from conditions that have been described as torture.” (hoganlovells.com, Jan. 26)
The legal brief says the National Commission of Correctional Health Care has stated that spans of solitary confinement longer than 15 days are “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and harmful to an individual’s health,” and “should be eliminated as a means of punishment.” Additionally, the United Nations has described indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement as torture.
Hogan Lovells is the same firm that won a court-approved settlement of a class action in September 2021. The settlement challenged the rules that place all Louisiana’s incarcerated individuals, who are on death row, in indefinite solitary confinement.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott and reactionary conservatives running the Texas prison system’s administration have shown absolutely no interest in protecting the rights of those incarcerated in prison or in prolonged solitary.
Activists are hoping that those on death row can win this lawsuit. A victory would not only mandate changes, it may grant monetary damages for the prisoners affected. Such a win would announce a new day for the rights of incarcerated people in Texas.
Until complete abolition of prisons is possible, a victory in this lawsuit would be a good step in the right direction.
Gloria Rubac is a founding member of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.