Sunday, February 2, 2014
The Texas Observer has this fascinating story about a prison guard union that has called on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to scale back its policy of placing death row inmates in solitary confinement. The article begins:
Texas’ largest prison guard union is calling for a partial end to the controversial use of solitary confinement on death row.
In a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) obtained by the Observer, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3807 advocates for TDCJ to house death-row prisoners who pose the lowest security risk in cells with other inmates. The union also calls for the prison system to introduce privileges such as work assignments, streaming television and technology such as computer tablets—all in an effort to reduce the psychological trauma of inmates and the potential confrontations with guards.
It’s a particularly powerful statement given the attitude of labor unions to prisoner rights and solitary confinement elsewhere in the country. According to an article in Mother Jones last year by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, founders of the Solitary Watch digital project on solitary confinement, those unions have largely been seen “as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”
But Lance Lowry, AFSCME’s president, wrote in the Jan. 20 letter that the changes it recommends to TDCJ’s death row plan would “positively impact both the correctional staff and offenders on Texas death row.”
The union’s call for change comes as TDCJ is reviewing its death row procedures. The last time there was a major change to conditions on death row was 15 years ago after seven inmates attempted to escape from the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, the former home of death row. One of them, Martin Gurule, successfully escaped the prison but drowned in a nearby creek.
Six months later, TDCJ relocated the men’s death row to the Terrell Unit in Livingston (since renamed the Polunsky Unit). Conditions at Polunsky were much stricter than at Ellis.
A 2010 Observer story described how at the Ellis Unit, inmates enjoyed more freedom. There they could work in the prison garment factory and had several hours a day of group recreation. They could watch TV and were only alone in their cells at night.