[Ppnews] A Cruel and Unusual Reality - Inside the Texas Death House

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 26 11:47:47 EDT 2006


October 26, 2006

Inside the Texas Death House

A Cruel and Unusual Reality


"I DIDN'T do it." Those were the words that Michael Dewayne Johnson 
scrawled in his own blood as he died from a self-inflicted slashed 
neck--hours before he was scheduled to be put to death in the Texas 
death chamber.

Johnson's horrific suicide highlights the physical and mental cruelty 
inflicted on the men and women on death row in America's execution capital.

Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1977, Texas has 
accounted for over one-third of all executions carried out in the 
U.S. The number of executions throughout the U.S. and in Texas gas 
been on a downward trend for the past several years, but the Texas 
execution machine still runs at an assembly-line pace, with one 
execution running up against another some months.

Johnson was to be the 22nd execution victim in Texas this year--put 
to death for a murder that he insisted was committed by another man 
charged in the crime, who testified against Johnson and is free today 
after serving eight years in prison.

But in the face of this barbarism, death row prisoners in Texas are 
organizing against brutal and inhumane conditions. Six prisoners are 
on a hunger strike that is close to a month old, and another 
group--which calls itself DRIVE, or Death Row Inner-Communalist 
Vanguard Engagement--is gaining recognition for its campaign of 
resistance from on death row.

Much of the grievances are focused on conditions on the Polunsky 
Unit--the "state-of-the-art" prison in Livingston, Texas, where death 
row was moved in 1999. In the new facility, inmates live in 23-hour 
administrative segregation inside 60-square-foot cells with sealed steel doors.

They have lost all group recreation, work programs, television access 
and religious services. There are also no contact visits allowed at 
Polunsky. Prisoners are only allowed one five-minute phone call every 
six months, their mail is often censored, the quality of food is low, 
and they have inadequate health and dental services.

This intolerable situation has prompted some prisoners to organize 
for better conditions--and to link their fight to the larger struggle 
against the death penalty.

The five DRIVE members--Kenneth Foster Jr., Rob Will, Gabriel 
Gonzalez, Reginald Blanton and Da'mon Simpson--say in 
<http://drivemovement.moonfruit.com/>their Web site statement that 
they are committed to "non-violently protest against this inhumane 
scheme called the Death Penalty."

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 against 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.

As Gabriel Gonzalez puts it in his diary, "Many times, we have 
addressed the problems with conditions and suggested reasonable 
solutions to the problems, which would not cause any breaches in the 
security of the prison, nor cost the state any money--but to no 
avail, because our verbal and written grievances fell on the deaf, 
indifferent ears of a sadistic administration that enjoys torturing 
and treating us like any thing but human.

"Yet how do you physically, psychologically and spiritually torture 
and treat people like animals and expect them to act civil and 
humane? Those of us here who still have a sense of self and humanity 
have had enough of the state-induced carnage and the brutal rape of 
our human rights and constitutional rights! Therefore, with this 
nonviolent protest, we have drawn a line and decided to physically 
and nonviolently resist the oppression."

Meanwhile, six other death row prisoners have been on hunger strike 
since October 5. The men--Travis Runnels, Steven Woods, Richard Cobb, 
Kevin Watts, Justin Hall and Stephen Moody--intend to stay on hunger 
strike until January 1.

"For the past several years, I and a few hundred others have been 
living out what can easily be called a nightmare," explained Steven 
Woods. "After the injustice of being sentenced to death by a corrupt 
legal system, we are shorn of our dignity and our identity, caged and 
treated like animals. We spend these years stored in the Polunsky 
Unit in a segregated housing facility that has been designed to house 
over 500 people in a complete indefinite isolation."

The hunger strikers' demands include better meals, cell maintenance, 
adequate health care and proper hygienic and laundry necessities. 
They are also calling for a halt to the excessive punitive measures 
used against death row prisoners, especially those making protests.

One of the worst retaliatory practices used on protesting prisoners 
is gassing. Prisoners occupying day rooms and other areas are met by 
SWAT teams that use tear gas and pepper spray to remove them.

One of the hunger strikers, Steven Woods was gassed on October 9. "A 
smoke grenade was dropped on the outside yard, which filled it to the 
top with smoke," DRIVE member Kenneth Foster wrote in his diary. 
"Steve endured that, and no less than 10 minutes later, another was 
dropped...My god, we thought they'd killed him. All this for a man 
who weighs 140 pounds. This was an overuse of chemical agent. I truly 
believe they are trying to kill us with the gas."

That these prisoners are wiling to endure this abuse to fight for 
their basic human rights should be a wake-up call to the people of 
Texas and to the world. They need our support.

"We are neither violent or passive," writes Foster. "We are 
combative. We are resisters. We are diverse activists, but more than 
anything else may we be looked upon as men that embraced the 
sacredness of life and sought to assert the full measure of their 
humanity in the face of those that would seek to destroy it."

Lily Hughes writes for the 
<http://www.counterpunch.org//www.socialistworker.org>Socialist Worker.

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