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Texas Inmates Protest Conditions With Hunger Strikes

Wednesday, November 08 2006 @ 02:57 PM CST

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by Ralph Blumenthal

HOUSTON - Likening themselves to prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, a dozen inmates on death row in Texas have staged hunger strikes over the last month to protest what they call abusive conditions, including 23 hours a day of isolation in their cells.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that the first inmates began refusing food Oct. 8 and that two were still on hunger strikes in the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, about 45 miles east of the execution unit in Huntsville. The Polunsky Unit houses death-row inmates until their executions. As of Tuesday, one inmate had missed 35 consecutive meals and one 17 meals, but no one has yet been force-fed, said a department spokeswoman, Michelle Lyons.

Two other prisoners who had not eaten since Oct. 8 began taking food Oct. 27 and Nov. 4, Ms. Lyons said, and others abandoned their protests after a short time.

But Vickie McCuistion, program coordinator of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said some inmates had been reported as eating when they were still refusing food. Ms. Lyons said that a prisoner needed to miss nine meals to be considered on hunger strike and that some who had refused meals had eaten snacks at visiting sessions.

“Either conditions will improve, or we will starve to death,” vowed one of the first hunger strikers, Steven Woods, in an Internet posting put up by groups opposed to the death penalty. Since death row was moved from an older and more open facility in 2000, he said, “We lost all our group recreation, art programs, and supplies” in addition to “work programs, televisions and religious services.”

Because the inmates are not allowed to have contact visits, “the only physical contact we’ll get until they kill us is when the C.O.’s hold our restrained arms while escorting us,” he wrote, referring to corrections officers.

The protests are the latest disruptions at the nation’s busiest execution complex, where 23 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection so far this year and another is scheduled to die Wednesday. Although California leads the nation in prisoners on death row, Texas executes them far more frequently, with 378 put to death since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1982. Virginia is second with 97.

Prison officials say the harsher conditions on death row came in response to a notorious escape in 1998 and a move to the more secure Polunsky Unit. Ms. Lyons said Mr. Woods had refused meals the longest but began eating again on Saturday.

Mr. Woods, 26, was convicted with a co-defendant of killing a man and woman in a robbery north of Dallas in 2001.

The hunger strikes in the Polunsky Unit were already under way when Michael D. Johnson, a 29-year-old convicted killer protesting his innocence, used a razor blade to slash a vein and an artery on Oct. 20, committing suicide in his cell hours before his scheduled execution for the murder of a convenience store clerk. He used his blood to scrawl a message on the wall: “I didn’t shoot him.”

John Moriarty, the inspector general for the prison system, said an inquiry was continuing into how Mr. Johnson had secreted the blade and used it in the 15 minutes between checks by officers on “death watch.”

The longest-striking inmate still refusing food, Ms. Lyons said, is William M. Mason, 52, who was convicted of murdering his wife and dumping her body in the San Jacinto River after he complained that she had played the radio too loud. After refusing 35 meals over 17 days, Ms. Lyons said, Mr. Mason has lost 20 pounds and now weighs 239.

Also on a hunger strike, Ms. Lyons said, was Larry Estrada, 27, who was convicted with a co-defendant of killing a Houston convenience store clerk and shooting another during a robbery in 1997. Mr. Estrada has refused 17 meals over a week, she said. But she said neither inmate was at the point of needing to be force-fed, a determination made by doctors from the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Mary Felts, a civil lawyer in Austin who helps the inmates with wills and other personal legal services, said she found many of the complaints valid. “Sensory deprivation is the worst kind of abuse,” Ms. Felts said. “If I were the warden I’d want the men to have TVs; the women have TVs. It would cut down on mischief.”

Ms. Lyons, the prisons spokeswoman, said that while television sets could alleviate the monotony of solitary confinement, there was no place to hang the sets outside the cells where the men could see them. The old Ellis Unit, where death row was housed from 1965 to 1999, had a wall opposite the cells where the sets could be installed.

“It’s not something we’ve made a priority,” she added. “We have not sought funding, and not many taxpayers would approve.” Prison activists say the state has rejected offers of donated sets.

Ms. Lyons also said the inmates “have not made any formal request” to have grievances heard, “so there’s no formal response.”

Most of what officials know about the complaints, she said, “we’ve gleaned from the antideath-penalty postings.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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