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New hunger strike on Texas death row

By Kelly Booker | January 26, 2007 | Page 2

A GROUP of Texas death row prisoners have launched another hunger strike to begin the new year. On January 1, 21 prisoners on death row participated in a "solidarity fast" for at least three days. Three weeks later, five inmates were still refusing food.

A hunger strike begun in late 2006 brought international attention to the terrible conditions at Texas' Polunsky Unit, where prisoners are confined to 60-square-foot cells for 23 hours a day.

Since 1999, there has been no group recreation, work programs, television access or religious services for death row prisoners. No contact visits are allowed, and prisoners are only permitted one five-minute phone call every six months. Their mail is censored, the quality of food is low, and health and dental services are inadequate.

This latest hunger strike echoes the demands that prisoners made last year: better meals, maintenance of cells, proper health care and the necessities for hygiene and laundry. The hunger strikers are also calling for an end to excessive punitive measures used against death row prisoners, especially those making protests.

What you can do

For more information on the struggle on Texas' death row, including detailed reports of individual protests and the response of the riot teams, go to the DRIVE Movement Web site. DRIVE is asking supporters to write a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and to Texas representatives calling on them to meet the group's demands. Click here to download a sample letter.

 

Demonstrations by prisoners took place throughout the month, initiated by DRIVE (Death Row Inner-communalist Vanguard Engagement). The group has doubled in size since last year and now includes nine men. Two members, Steven Woods and Reginald Blanton, are among those still on hunger strike.

In addition to the fast, prisoners have engaged in sit-ins, occupations and other actions to call attention to the mistreatment of prisoners and to protest capital punishment. "A bunch of people are protesting, and this is just the beginning," said DRIVE member Robert Will. "We've been planning and organizing really strong this past month." said DRIVE member Robert Will.

Texas has responded to the protests with riot teams and assaults with military-grade chemical agents. Nevertheless, the prisoners' actions have forced the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to take notice.

After all executions were halted in California, Florida and Maryland in December, the chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee asked for a meeting with DRIVE supporters on the outside. He promised to "look into" seven grievances raised by DRIVE, including visitation limitations, poor health services and the use of chemical gas against inmates.

DRIVE is asking for supporters to send letters to state officials to ensure that they follow through. "What we're doing on the inside is important, but there are limits to what we can do," Will explained. "What we really need is a movement on the outside."

Texas leads the nation in state-sponsored killings--almost half of all executions in the U.S. last year took place in the death chamber in Huntsville. The struggle against the death penalty by activists on the outside combined with actions of the men and women on death row could shake up the Texas death machine in 2007.

As hunger striker Reginald Blanton wrote, "This is how the New Year should be brought in--with RESISTANCE!"

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