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Texas Death Row Hunger Strike

Scores of death row prisoners in Texas kicked off the new millennium with a planned 21-day hunger strike over intolerable conditions of confinement. As many as 100 death row prisoners as well as hundreds of other ad-seg prisoners participated in the hunger strike, according to reports by Gloria Rubac published in Workers World.

Texas prison officials deny that a large scale hunger strike took place. The Dallas Morning News reported that prison officials would admit to only 48 death row prisoners refusing some, but not all, meals.

"If they don't eat, that's their own thing," Texas prison official (media flack) Larry Fitzgerald told the Morning News. "We offer the food to them. They can refuse it."

But according to Workers World, over 100 death row prisoners at the Terrell Unit participated as well as more than 500 ad-seg prisoners at the Darington, Michael, McConnell, Robertson, Allred, Beto I, and Estelle units. The prisoners called the action a "non-disruptive show of unity with the goal of gaining attention to the conditions here by the public, the news media, the prison administration, thereby hopefully making a change for the better in our overall treatment," reported Workers World.

The protest appears to have been widespread and well planned. Every work day from January 1 to January 21 supporters of striking prisoners gathered in front of the downtown Houston offices of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, chanting slogans and passing out literature to passers by.

"Death row prisoners at Terrell spend 23-24 hours a day alone in a 6 feet by 10 feet cell that does not have bars but a solid steel door," the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement wrote in a pamphlet passed out in front of TDCJ headquarters. "They are denied contact with any human beings and spend their time alone in total isolation. Those who get recreation, have it alone. They eat alone in the cell and are taken to shower alone. They are no longer allowed to participate in the work program, to watch television, to make crafts or art work, and only those on top disciplinary status are allowed radios."

More than 100 of the 450 men on death row have been moved from the Ellis Unit to an ad-seg wing of the new super-max Terrell Unit. The rest are scheduled to be transerred by summer. The move from Ellis to the much harsher conditions of the super-max Terrell Unit was prompted by the Thanksgiving Day 1998 death row escape of seven prisoners from the older Ellis Unit [See: Daring Death Row Escape Shakes Up Texas, PLN, April '99].

Support for the striking prisoners spread to other countries. According to Workers World, activists in several cities in Italy went on solidarity hunger strikes and mailed letters of protest to Texas prison officials. A solidarity protest was reportedly held in front of the U.S. embassy in London. And the Texas Abolition Movement reports that solidarity messages poured in from far and wide -- San Francisco to Detroit, Australia to Germany.

TDCJ officials tried at first to deny the existence of the strike, and instituted repressive measures to crush it, including censorship of incoming and outgoing mail relating to the action, calling it "gang related."

Some messages did get through, however. In a letter to the Abolition Movement, one prisoner wrote: "We want all of you supporting us to know... we are standing strong and refusing food as we said; however, the correctional officers are purposely marking us down as having eaten. If this is brought up in an attempt to knock the wind out of your sails, know that the paperwork is maliciously being forged with lies to cloak our resolve. We are still committed regardless of what lies are put forth by the administration."

Sources: Workers World, Dallas Morning News

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