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Texas prisoners go on hunger strike to protest solitary confinement

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Dozens of prisoners across Texas are nearly a week into a hunger strike in protest of what they say is inhumane treatment. The inmates, all men, want an end to solitary confinement. Paul Flahive of Texas Public Radio has been following the story, and he joins us now from San Antonio.

Paul, so what do the inmates say about the conditions they're living in?

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Yeah. The men are in restrictive housing, or what's better known as solitary confinement, where they spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells. In a letter to state legislators, they said staffing shortages have made the situation even worse, where one prison unit - Collier unit - men had only had outside recreation a handful of time in three years, and staff struggled to give them access to showers more than once a week. State officials have contested those descriptions, but the strikes are happening in as many as 14 units across the state. And the State Department of Criminal Justice says 72 inmates are participating, though outside organizers say it's more like a 300.

MARTÍNEZ: Why does the state of Texas say these inmates are being kept in solitary confinement?

FLAHIVE: They say it's good for staff and other inmates - many of the men in solitary because they are determined to be a high escape risk. They've got disciplinary violations like assault. But many are members of restricted gangs. So some are being separated simply because of their status as gang members. And prison administrators say they use an exhaustive process to determine who should be in solitary, and it's reviewed periodically. A spokesperson said the state's made big strides in reducing the number of inmates in this secure detention, dropping 65% over the past 15 years from about 9,000 to just over 3,100 now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. What are the inmates saying?

FLAHIVE: We've reached out to several, but we have not been able to connect just yet. We've seen letters they've sent to state lawmakers with their demands and concerns. These inmates, especially the gang members, say they shouldn't be punished for just being in a gang. For them to get out of solitary, them must go through a renouncement and denouncement program, which oftentimes means snitching on their inmates, which puts them at risk. Some have been inside for over a decade, say researchers. Advocate Brittany Robertson has been in touch with some of these inmates. She says they want the state to stop holding people indefinitely this way and to build a step-down program so inmates can acclimate to the general population before they're released from prison.

BRITTANY ROBERTSON: Eighty percent of them will enter the community. And these are men who have dealt with isolation and can suffer from PTSD, psychosis and hallucinations. And there's nothing preparing them. Some of them have been in for 20 years.

FLAHIVE: Prison officials say these are violent and organized gangs, and they can't trust them to have free rein to recruit throughout the jails.

MARTÍNEZ: Then why did the Texas institute this sweeping solitary confinement system in the first place?

FLAHIVE: Yeah, Texas had an explosion of prison gangs and violence in the mid-'80s, and the state - it needed to implement this to secure those programs. Today people who follow criminal justice say it simply amounts to torture. In fact, I spoke to a number of prison researchers. And Texas is now just one of the handful of states to still use this administrative segregation based on gang membership. California stopped a similar practice nearly a decade ago after a weekslong hunger strike involving hundreds of inmates and a class-action lawsuit.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Paul Flahive, a reporter with Texas Public Radio. Paul, thanks a lot.

FLAHIVE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.