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Texas lawmaker, prison advocates push for solitary confinement reform

A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island jail.
Bebeto Matthews
A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island jail.

Men in Texas prisons are now entering the fourth week of a hunger strike in Texas prisons. It’s part of a larger effort to reform the harsh conditions of solitary confinement.

After four weeks, 18 men remain on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement in Texas prisons.

Now, a North Texas lawmaker is pushing legislation to back the inmates' fight.

Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, filed three bills last month ahead of the 2023 legislative session aimed at reforming solitary confinement.

Her main concern during this strike, Meza said, is the consequences of solitary.

“Many people who go into prison come back out again and they're going to join us,” Meza said. “They may be our neighbor on our street. How would you feel about having a neighbor who had to stay in solitary confinement for years?”

House Bill 812 proposes limiting an inmate's time in solitary confinement to no more than 10 days. A second bill, HB 480, seeks to prevent an inmate from being put in solitary confinement for gang involvement.

A third, HB 813, would have proposed the comptroller and state health organizations conduct a study on the mental health effects of solitary confinement. But Meza said she's stopped pursuing that legislation.

"We really don't need to study this," Meza said. "We already know the bad and negative impact and effect that solitary confinement has on prisoners."

Meza previously filed two of these bills ahead of the last legislative session in 2021, but neither made it past Corrections Committee hearings. Still, she said, those members were supportive of her proposals.

Texas houses 3,100 men in solitary confinement. The number of men participating in the strike has fluctuated since it began Jan. 10, and none of the inmates who joined the strike when it started are still participating, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

A TDCJ spokesperson, Amanda Hernandez, said the population of inmates in solitary has decreased over the past decade. TDCJ is currently not allowing in-person interviews with inmates.

"The agency is committed to continuing reducing the number of inmates in security detention by diverting them prior to entering restrictive housing and providing effective programs that offer pathways for inmates to leave segregation,” Hernandez wrote in a statement.

The state is facing a lawsuit over its solitary confinement conditions from a group of death row inmates who argued its policy of mandating solitary for people awaiting execution causes severe physical, mental and emotional harm.

For Marci Marie Simmons, the issue at the heart of the prison strike hits close to home: She was incarcerated for more than 10 years at a maximum security prison in Gatesville.

During that period, she said she was put in solitary confinement six different times.

"You hear people cursing and yelling profanities out the door," Simmons said. "Like a despair, kind of. Anger. It was very loud."

After her release, Simmons experienced firsthand the negative mental health effects of solitary confinement. She described the difficulty of connecting with friends and family who couldn't understand what she'd been through.

Now, nearly two years after leaving prison, Simmons is a prison rights advocate. She remains in contact with incarcerated people, some of whom are in solitary confinement.

Even if Meza's proposed bills don't become law, Simmons said the efforts serve as a stepping stone to reform.

"Every time one even gets written, every time a bill gets written in our favor, that's a small win," Simmons said.

Additional reporting by Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive.

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Toluwani Osibamowo is a general assignments reporter for KERA. She previously worked as a news intern for Texas Tech Public Media and copy editor for Texas Tech University’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is originally from Plano.