Live From Death Row

Prisoners Fight Back

By: Randi Jones

The anti-death penalty movement has seen some major changes in the last couple of months. One of the central emerging themes surrounding the death penalty debate is the cruel and unusual way in which executions are carried out. But the death penalty is cruel and unusual far before an inmate reaches the execution chamber. The people on Texas’ death row can attest to the inhumane nature of capital punishment from the time of arrest all the way to the gurney.

At the end of last year, about a dozen brave men on Texas’ death row went on hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions on the Polunsky unit where inmates awaiting execution are warehoused. Even the New York Times took note of the protest. “Likening themselves to prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay,” the New York Times reported last November, “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.” As of January 1, 2007 the hunger strike is back in full swing.

“We will not accept another morsel of food from our captors until such a time as TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) makes a credible effort towards the changes necessary to remove the current inhumane conditions,” says Steven Woods, one of the hunger strikers. “We have several viable requests we’re making to the administration, dealing with health and safety issues, with policies and procedures being ignored and misinterpreted, and with our segregated housing conditions. It’s a shame that we have to starve ourselves to be treated decently. We’re hoping we don’t have to starve to death, but we cannot allow ourselves to be denied our basic human rights. We cannot, we will not live like this any longer. “

The hunger strikers are asking for basic needs to be met such as food that is edible and the proper maintenance of their toilets so that they don’t clog and overflow their cell floors. Grievances also include the lack of education and work programs; group recreation; access to adequate healthcare; efficient mail services; arts and crafts programs; televisions; law library supplies; phone calls; religious services; visitation rights; and adequate laundry and hygiene services. Their requests could easily be granted and their humanity upheld. Unfortunately, though, the authorities have an interest in dehumanizing death row prisoners.

The Death Row Inner-Communalist Vanguard Engagement, also known as DRIVE, stands in solidarity with the hunger strikers and continues their own methods of protest. DRIVE is a multi-racial group of non-violent prison activists who are dedicated to bringing change for the entire death penalty population. Their protest tactics include distributing literature, addressing their issues with guards, and occupying day rooms, showers and visitation chambers. Prisoners are encouraged to protest on days when executions are scheduled, and to protest their own executions by refusing to walk to the van that takes them to the Ellis Unit, where executions still take place; refusing last meals; and refusing to walk to the execution chamber. The DRIVE membership has doubled in size in the last couple of months, going from five members to ten, and has expanded to women’s death row also. This sends out a signal that more and more death row prisoners are fed up with the inhumane conditions and the struggle is moving forward.

Any type of resistance on the row is met with what can only be called torture. Many times their non-violent protests are met with 37mm gas cannons designed to hurt, not subdue, inmates. Protesters are often refused recreation, food, and showers after being gassed. The guards also use “divide and conquer” tactics to try to dissuade other prisoners from protesting.

Family members are also speaking out against the inhumane treatment of their loved ones. Sister of DRIVE comrade Kenneth Foster, Claire Dube, explains why this struggle is so important to her, “Many of the family members of the inmates and especially DRIVE have concerns about their family member’s humanity and treatment. Inmates are still human beings and should be treated as if their family was the one taking care of them.”

In response to letters from overseas raising concerns about the conditions at Polunsky, Texas Representative Jerry Madden, the chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee, has said that he will look into the situation at Polunsky. Plus, representatives of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice have contacted the Austin CEDP regarding concerns that have been raised about the conditions at Polunsky. This shows that the pressure is working and that supporters on the outside can help Polunsky’s prison activists achieve their goals.

To support the hunger strikers and the members of DRIVE on Texas’ death row, activists can send grievance letters to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice . It is important that these officials know that the inmates have support from outraged citizens and will help the prisoners with their struggle. Sample letters can be downloaded from www.drivemovement.org. Other prisoners can express their support by sending letters to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s national office. Plus, supporters can write to the prisoners themselves to show their solidarity.

“Yet even as we take this drastic step to stand against this injustice, we realize our actions alone will not likely bring the changes we require,” write Steven Woods, Justen Hall and Richard Cobb in their statement of intent. “We need your support in this struggle, fighting with us side by side. The administration will try to cover up and misconstrue our efforts, so we’re asking you to get involved, to put up as much effort as you’re able. Any actions you can take to help vocalize our plight are positive, be it writing to government officials, TDCJ administration, the media, participating in online blogs and forums, protesting if you’re able, and encouraging others to get involved. We’ll also need your encouragement and solidarity to help keep us from faltering, as even the most stout of heart can waver. The struggle will be long and hard, but in the end, with your help, we hope to succeed.”

For more info about DRIVE; to read the journals of death row inmates, and to watch video of the repression they face visit www.drivemovement.org. For more information about the hunger strike visit www.anarachyinchains.com

Send grievance letters to:

Warden Massey and Assistant Warden Hirch, Polunksy Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, Texas 77351, (936) 967-8082. Ask for the Warden’s office.

Representative Jerry Madden, Chair, Capitol Office Room EXT E1.506, P.O. Box 2910, Austin, TX 78768, (512) 463-9974—fax

Write to DRIVE members:

Steven Woods, #999427
Reginald Blanton, #999395
Rob Will, #999402
Kenneth Foster, #999232
Gabriel Gonzalez, #999225
Da’mon Simpson, #999370
Randy Greer, #999042
Randy Halprin, #999453
Carroll Parr, #999479
Polunsky Unit, 3872 F.M. 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351

Carolyn King, OC 7210, P.O. Box 180 Unit R-B, Muncy, PA 17756