Prisoners in Texas are in the second week of a hunger strike to demand an end to the practice of keeping inmates in solitary confinement for much, much longer than the 15 days that the United Nations considers torture. One of their main demands is that "under no circumstances will any prisoner remain in solitary confinement for more than 10 years," the Guardian reports. Under the state's policy of keeping gang members in what it calls "restricted housing" indefinitely, more than 500 inmates have been isolated for at least 10 years and 138 for at least 20 years. California ended its indefinite solitary confinement policy in 2015 after years of hunger strikes and court battles. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says 72 inmates are refusing food, though activists say the number is closer to 120, the Texas Tribune reports.
Some 3,100 prisoners are in solitary confinement in Texas, down from 9,000 15 years ago, authorities say. The number includes some who have committed assaults in the prison system and those considered at high risk of escape as well as gang members. The hunger strikers say staffing shortages have made conditions even worse, with inmates in one unit only having outdoor recreation a handful of times over the last three years. Prison officials say it is too dangerous to have members of gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood or the Mexican Mafia in the general population. The inmates say they want Texas to switch from confining people based solely on gang status to a "behavioral based system to address the behavior of individuals."
"For them to get out of solitary, they must go through a renouncement and denouncement program, which oftentimes means snitching ... which puts them at risk," Texas Public Radio reporter Paul Flahive tells PBS. "They want to create a step-down program that would gradually reenter the vast majority of them back into general population, especially those that have an out date, a date when they would be released from prison, because the data around people that go straight from solitary confinement to the streets is not very good." In a letter to prison authorities months before the strikes began, inmates said they were suffering "long-term mental, physical, and emotional harm which endure long after release and cannot be undone." (Read more Texas prisons stories.)