The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3807, Texas’ largest prison guard union, has called for a reduction in solitary confinement on death row. In a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), AFSCME representatives asked the prison system to put low-risk inmates in cells with other prisoners and to provide privileges like work assignments and television streaming. Lance Lowry, president of Huntsville AFSCME, said these changes will “positively impact both the correctional staff and offenders on Texas death row.”Studies reveal that long periods of isolation can put prisoners' mental health at risk. As a writer for Texas Observer recalls: I have interviewed inmates on death row in Texas who recounted stories of fellow inmates screaming out at night, lying naked in the recreation yard, defecating on themselves and even mutilating themselves with shanks—weapons fashioned from objects in their cell. … Death row inmates are currently assigned a custody level from one to three depending on their behavior (all are still housed in administrative segregation, but privileges like radios are removed for category three prisoners). Lowry wrote: “Housing death row [level 1] offenders in a solitary cell is a waste of valuable security personnel and money.” TDCJ spokesperson Jason Clark said the agency will take AFSCME's demands into consideration as it reviews its death row policy. Other advocacy groups, such as the ACLU, will also likely send recommendations to the department.AFSCME is a sponsor of In These Times.
Ana Martinez is a Spring 2014 intern.