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Men put in prison cages without bathrooms or beds, say reform groups

A guard looks on near the wall of a prison unit in Huntsville, Texas.
Richard Carson
A guard looks on near the wall of a prison unit in Huntsville, Texas.

While a hunger strike continues to roil Texas prisons, a complaint of additional inhumane and unsanitary treatment of inmates has been sent to the state prison ombudsman.

Two prison reform groups alleged in a complaint that prison officials at the Gib Lewis unit in East Texas have regularly — and for days — left men in holding cells without beds, without the ability to fully lay down, and without access to bathrooms.

“They are forced to kind of bang on the cells and ask people walking by to pass in a water bottle or a bag from the trash or use their food trays — or, in the worst cases, just use the ground — because the guards won't let them out to access the bathroom,” said Molly Petchenik with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The letter to the ombudsman requested an investigation into the allegations made by a dozen inmates to the Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Prison Reform.

According to the inmates, the holding cages that number less than 10 in two locations are used at times for suicide watch, overcrowding, and heightened security. The practice violates Texas Criminal Justice Department policy as well as national and international norms and laws, argueed the letter. One man claimed to be kept in the holding cage for more than a week.

“Multiple independent accounts confirm the regular use of holding cages in a manner that violates basic human decency,” it read.

TCRP and the Texas Prison Reform’s complaint to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice could lead to an investigation by the state or potentially a civil rights lawsuit.

“We're keeping our options open,” Petchenik said. “This is an egregious situation and inhumane situation and so we don't want to close any doors at the moment.”

The groups did not communicate these concerns to TDCJ directly, opting to instead go to the ombudsman directly.

Petchenik said the reasons for using the holding cells were vaguely understood by the men they spoke to and were arbitrary. Her organization first heard about the holding cell use last July. She said the cells are not intended for living in and should be used appropriately.

TDCJ did not immediately respond to TPR's requests for comment. The letter was also sent to the Justice Department. The DOJ is currently investigating the state's five youth secure detention facilities for allegations of civil rights violations.

“We hope this letter makes prison leadership listen to the men inside Gib Lewis. I know they have gone a long time without feeling heard,” said Brittany Robertson with Texas Prison Reform.

An offender walks past a sign on a wall at the the Darrington Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice men's prison in Rosharon, Texas Criminal Justice Texas prison hunger strike over solitary confinement enters third week Paul Flahive

The letter comes as state prison officials struggle to convince inmates in several facilities to eat. A hunger strike has entered its fifth week at state prisons, with 19 men currently refusing food. According to Robertson, none of the men involved with TCRP’s complaint are hunger strikers.

The men refusing food are protesting the use of indefinite solitary confinement. While numerous studies have shown the extreme, negative physical and mental health impacts, and bodies like the United Nations have condemned the practice, Texas persists in its use. Hundreds of the 3,100 men held this way have been isolated for more than a decade.

Texas is one of a handful that continue to use solitary to segregate members of specific prison gangs from the general population. The practice stems from spikes in violence that jolted the state prison system in the 1980s. Studies are mixed on whether the practice works at reducing violence.

TDCJ has barred hunger strikers from in-person interviews with the press, explaining that the men constitute a disruption the state cannot allow to grow through media attention. TPR and The Texas Tribune have threatened legal action over the ban.

None of the current men on strike have been refusing food continuously since Jan. 10 when it began, though officials did not release details on the length of time the men have been striking. The state doesn’t count a person as on hunger strike until they have refused three days' worth of meals. The numbers of men on strike have swung from 72 the first week to as few as six men last week.

No hospital interventions have been necessary, according to TDCJ.

The state was also sued recently by death row inmates over the use of mandatory solitary confinement for those awaiting execution.

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Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

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.