As our imminent mass hunger strike to end indefinitie solitary confinement looms only days away (to begin January 1, 2022), I find myself simultaneously eager, anxious, and reflective.
My eagerness and excitement are self-explanatory. After months of preparation, organizing, and patiently explaining to other prisoners, encouraging them to participate (with varying degrees of success); it is finally here. Finally time for action. Finally time to find out if mass nonviolent resistance can break the system; to find out if we can force much needed change to one of the largest, most draconian prison systems in the nation that operates on an irrationally and excessively punitive-based penological model that is notorioualy resistant to change or modernization...or even recognizing basic human needs and adapting to meet those needs, or the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," or "the minimal civilized measures of life's necessities." (Quoting Wilkerson v Stalder, 639 F.Supp2d 654, 677(M.D.La. 2007), citing Farmer V. Brennan and Rhodes V. Chapman. "Wilkerson" is the decades long legal battle of the "Angola-3" who were held in solitary confinement for nearly four decades.)
My eagerness and excitement are further encouraged as I marvel at the occasional synchronicity of the universe and wonder if it just happenned to bend in our favor at the right time? If Dr. King was correct, that "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then maybe it is bending in our favor? There is nothing "moral" about locking thousands of humans in tiny cages (often 5'x9'), in solitary confinement for years or decades, despite the fact that most never violated any rules, never harmed anyone, or are no longer a threat to anyone. And so, as our mass hunger strike looms, the perpetually short-staffed TDCJ (at last report more than 2500 officers short) is being hit hard by the COVID Omicron variant, further stretching TDCJ's staffing and resources. The result is that when our hunger strike progresses to the point of requiring hospitalization, TDCJ will likely not have the staff or resources to medically transport and guard dozens of us from each facility, potentially totalling hundreds and hundreds systemwide. Sometimes the universe just smiles and bends in your favor. For once, I am not complaining about the frustrating consequences of COVID. And it somewhat eases a few of my anxieties about our effort.
Much of my anxiety is common to any significant event which has potential for great success...or failure; one in which so many are involved and put so much effort into organizing; one with an as yet uncertain outcome that so many are placing so much hope upon. Have we done enough? Have we prepared well enough? Did we forget anything? Will we have enough outside support from loved ones and activists? Will they be able to apply enough pressure to the right public officials (Governor Abbott, Senator John Whitmire, Texas Board of Criminal Justice board members)? Will there even be enough public awareness and outrage to demand changes? Praying that there isn't some major news event that overshadows our story or prevents any attention to it. Will the public even care if it doesn't affect them or someone they know? Will the media take enough interest to make it a big story? So much anxiety over the things we cannot control. But all those things are dependent upon us in here doing our part to start it. Everything else extends from that seminal act of defiance.
One nagging anxiety has been resolved; Do we have the attention of TDCJ administration and are they taking it seriously? One purpose of serving our advance "Notice of Hunger Strike" to administration on December 1, was to get their attention, give them time to discuss potential changes, how to implement them if forced to.While I often sarcastically ridicule the intelligence of TDCJ officials, it isn't unreasonable to expect that someone in administeation is versed in crisis management. And what we are planning, is going to create a "crisis" of one form or another. Of course they would discuss it. But we certainly didn't expect them to simply give in to all our demands without ever starting the hunger strike. Why would they do anything unforced? Of course they would take a "wait and see" approach, to determine how many are participating, how many will endure, what is the public awareness? Yet, they have made some subtle moves.
For example, in deamnd number 8, where we demand allowing our loved ones to make outside purchases through approved vendors to provide "care packages" of necessary items, we cite examples of how commissary has had soap "shortages" where we went months without soap, even more months without toothbrushes or shampoo, or shoes and work boots. Within two weeks of submitting that notice, the commissary suddenly had unlimited supply of toothbrushes and not one, not two, but SIX different kinds of brand name shampoo and body wash. In more than 24 years in TDCJ, I've never seen that. It has always been only one or two choices of generic, no-name, dollar store products provided by the lowest bidder. Then, two weeks later, the unit commissary is fully stocked with all sizes of shoes and workboots, after more than a year... in the midst of a national supply chain crisis, truck driver shortage, that has been exacerbated by the demands of holiday shopping season...and yet, somehow, while major retailers' shelves are depleted and they struggle to meet demand, with limited availability of goods for citizens out there, somehow TDCJ was suddenyl able to procure an abundance of these items? For prisoners? Only after we submitted our "Notice of Hunger Strike" and cited these specific examples in one of our reasonable demands? So, TDCJ could claim to have "resolved" the problem of unavailability of these items? Wow! What a coincidence! So yes, I believe we certainly have their attention.
Another anxiety that has been partially alleviated by omicron-COVID straining TDCJ staffing and resources; would there be enough of us to overwhelm these limited resources and force the necessary changes? Not only enough of us to begin with a loud statement, but enough to remain committed when it becomes increasingly difficult to endure? Hunger strikes are not easy on the mind or body. And so I expect maybe half who begin, to give up after a week or so, but the eternal optimist in me hopes to be wrong. Given that barely half of the guys in solitary here at my unit have said they will participate, that means we are starting at a numerical disadvantage than if everyone were to participate. On one hand, there's the though that it is better to have those who are committed from the start, than a bunch who are undependable and not fully committed. If we had too many who would easily quit, it would demoralize the rest, and it would give TDCJ the impression that if so many quit so easily, the remainder will soon quit too, and they can just wait us out. Better to start with quality over quantity. On the other hand, Napoleon once mused on the topic of numerical superiority of troops in battle, "Quantity has a quality of its own."
Ideally, we should have begun with the participation of EVERYONE. The display of unity alone would have made a significant statement. I wish they would have at least committed to TRY. And who knows, maybe some of those with wavering doubts would have discovered that they can do it, found determination and satisfaction in taking a stand for a just cause? I will NEVER understand those who are unwilling to even try, especially when they have so little to lose and so much to gain. Why?
And so, I find myself increasingly reflective, wondering why roughly half the guys here refuse to participate or even try? Not a day goes by that I don't overhear at least one conversation over the run bemoaning the condition of solitary confinement/Restrictive Housing, what prisoners are allowed to have or do in other state and federal prison systems, and just how backwards and screwed up TDCJ is in general. Those conversations often progress to admitting that nothing will change until there is mass, coordinated, nonviolent resistance by prisoners with outside support; usually the idea of everyone "laying it down" and refusing to work. Then, invariably, the conversation concludes with the defeatist fatalist statement of, "Yeah, but that will never happen because there is no unity in TDCJ. Guys aren't willing to make the sacrifice."
No willingness to sacrifice or endure discomfort.
EVERYONE in TDCJ is familiar with this conversation. They've participated in it, or heard it, innumerable times. Everyone in TDCJ recognizes the lack of unity among prisoners to improve our living conditions, to demand changes for the better. And yet, they do nothing as individuals to change this or to encourage unity. Even worse, as I've discovered while trying to organize this hunger strike to end indefinite restrictive housing/solitary confinement, even when given an opportunity to engage in unified action, when shown a way to effect change the right way (a way that doesn't result in disciplinary consequences), roughly half refuse to participate or even consider it! And some go so far as to discourage others from it. Even when participation will have a direct personal benefit. People complain about how much they "hate" being indefinitely trapped in the hell of Restrictive Housing/solitary confinement, then decline the opportunity to do something to end it.
Ironically, it seems that the most vocally aggressive and belligerent occupants of solitary, the ones quick to threaten others, quick to "demand respect," the ones always yelling the annoyingly familiar refrain, "You wouldn't say that to me in population!" NONE of those types are participating in the hunger strike. None of them are really serious about getting out of RH/solitary. It's easy to identify them for what they are; they like it in solitary, where they can bump and roar and pretend to be a tough guy, a bad ass, a gangsta, a thug, a killer...while safe behind a locked steel door where there are no consequences for these words or actions, and they never have to back up their belligerent proclamations and insults. But they are a small percentage. A handful on each wing.
So, what of the other non-participants? Why are they so complacent? So defeated? So submissive? At first glance, it is near incomprehensible. This is more than merely being "institutionalized." How do they not see it? And even when it is explained and exposed to them, they simply shrug and continue as before? The answer is that they have become obedient, broken slaves in the slave culture of TDCJ. That is not an exaggeration or over-dramatization. The culture within TDCJ is the product of post-Civil War 19th century.
Culture, at its core, are the things that a group of people, a society, chooses to incentivize or disincentivize. Whether it is the predominant overarching American culture, or the countless sub-cultures within it. In the closed, isolated, aberrant "society" that is TDCJ, there are significant elements that can be traced back to the moral depravity of slavery and its tumultuous immediate aftermath.
Most Americans naively believe that "slavery" ended after the Civil War. In fact, while the 13th Amendment abolishes slavery, it makes the exception to allow it as punishment for a crime. This loophole allowed former slaves, their descendants, and the poor and uneducated of all races, to be arrested for minor crimes (often falsely), then slapped with excessive sentences (something Texas still takes perverse pride in continuing) or heavy fines they were unable to pay, and then imprisoned until they worked the debt off through labor on privately owned plantations (Like the Imperial Sugar Plantation) and farms or in prisons converted to work farms, where they were paid nearly nothing as wages, effectively enslaving them in perpetuity as "convicts" unable to earn enough to pay off their debts and fines. This system was known as "convict labor leasing." It continues today, especially in the South, and more specifically in Texas, where prisoners, often under excessive sentences disproportionate to their offense, are forced to labor in fields, farms, and factories without even the nominal wages of a few pennies an hour that most state and federal prisons provide. Texas prisoners are paid nothing, while Texas Correctional Industries rakes in millions of dollars per year for the State of Texas. This blatant conflict of interest provides TDCJ with a vested interest in maintaining high incarceration rates and low parole-approval rates. And to resist meaningful reforms.
A prime example of the lingering slave culture that I find particularly repulsive is the ubiquitous, subservient practice of calling correctional officers "boss." As in, "Yes Boss!" Yessir, Boss!" please, Boss?" "Hey, Bossman! "Bossman." "BOSSMAN!" All day, every day. It is incessant. If you've ever seen Cool Hand Luke, the way the guards are called "boss" is not creative license. ("I'm shakin in the bush, boss! I'm shakin the bush!").
This is a remnant of slavery and its aftermath. The slave-driver who supervised the master's slaves in the fields was "boss." After the "end" of slavery and the transition to convict labor leasing, although there were no mor e"masters" there were still slave-driving "bosses" on the plantations and prison farms worked by convict labor. Calling TDCJ officers "boss" is one of those cultural traditions that get passed along, generation to generation, until people adopt the habit without even knowing why or what it means. Some ignorantly assume it is just an innocuous show of respect. Respect? Really? There is a reason this term is perpetuated and encouraged by staff.
Words matter. Words are powerful. Words can be an expression of thought, or a method to influence the thoughts of others. From day one, upon entry to TDCJ, prisoners are influenced and encouraged to call guards "boss," "Bossman," "Bosslady." Thus begins the insidious mental subjugation, the indoctrination that the guards are better than you, they are a "boss," "The Boss," and you will obey because you are a slave, and to reinforce this you will be worked like a slave with no pay, in awful conditions, with the minimal of life's necessities. They will control everything, make you dependent upon them for everything, including your physical safety (Even if you fight in self-defense, you are punished. If you ask what they expect you to do, they tell you that you should have run away and asked the staff for help. In prison? Yep.)
Thus, the power dynamic is established and subliminally reinforced with every interaction with a guard. Constantly. On one side, the prisoner is conditioned to see himself as less-than, to undermine and crush his self-worth, to crush any will to resist. to serve his "boss," "his master," and to see the "boss" as his benevolent protector. On the other side, the guard is constantly told by the slave that he, the guard, is in charge, he is the authority figure, he's “the man," "The Boss man." He controls your life, your potential freedom (which can be stolen with a false disciplinary), when you eat, sleep, speak, use the bathroom. The slave is conditioned to call the guard a "boss," subconsciously feeding that seed which is buried deep in human nature, the seed that grows to bear poisonous fruitwhen fertilized with unchecked authority over people seen as "the other," as less-than, as trash of society who are helpless to resist. It is that part of human nature which inspired Lord Acton's quote, "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is that part of human nature on display with disturbing results in the Stanfor Prison Experiment (see The Lucifer Effect, by Phillip Zimbardo). It explains why TDCJ guards often treat prisoners with such disdain, such arrogant impunity, with sometimes brutal results. It is why they can abuse authority with little or no consequence, and cover for each other's misdeeds. (There's a reason they've embroidered on their uniform caps, "Taking care of our own.") They do not see us as humans worthy of respect and dignity. They are taught not to see that. They see us as societal garbage, dangerous, subhumans. Not equal to them. At that point, it is easy to justify slavery and mistreatment, violating the rights of people you believe shouldn't have any. It's why they have no problem ignoring us when we try to speak to them, or when we need help, or even when calling for medical assistance or other problems. It's why they act annoyed and inconvenienced when we request what we are entitled to have. It's why they have no problem lying to us to make us shut up. And it explains why they have no moral compunction about keeping us caged in tiny solitary confinement cells for decades, even when they admit (as in my case) that their original reason for putting us in ad-seg/RH/solitary is no longer valid, and then smugly use it as an excuse to continue it anyway. It's why they becaome furious if we display the slightest temerity to resist, to take a stand, to refuse an order, or disrupt their lazy routine, or demand to be treated as humans. More than once I've had an enraged officer yell in my face "I'M THE BOSS! YOU DO WHAT I SAY!" "I'M THE BOSS!"
This is why I adamantly refuse to EVER call a correctional Officer "boss." I refuse to participate or reinforce that dysfunctional power dynamic. They are not the "boss” of anything. If they were, they wouldn't be working here. They are glorified hall monitors and mall cops. They deliver our food and laundry like hotel room service. They sort and deliver our mail like an office-drone intern from the anonymous mundane depths of the mailroom. Occasionally, they are adult babysitters to referee and separate arguing and fighting adults who still act like Juveniles. Their job requires no skill, no special training, minimal education. They are some of the worst compensated public employees in the nation. No, they are most certainly NOT a "boss." They are simply doing a job. Admittedly, it is not always an easy, low stress job. And it is a necessary job for a functioning society. Thus, I will treat them with the same common courtesy and respect that I extend to every other human, no more and no less, sometimes even when it isn't deserved or reciprocated. But I REFUSE to participate in the slave culture charade. I refuse to participate in my own mental degradation. I refuse to perpetuate a lie. Because words matter. Thoughts matter. And Emanual Kant was absolutely correct, "There are many things I believe that I may never speak, but I will never speak that which I do not believe.” And so, I will never call them a "boss," and by extension, call myself a slave. Nor will I adopt the mentality of a slave or act like one: fatalistically resigned to accept whatever degradation or mistreatment the master/bossman arbitrarily chooses to inflict, or becoming dependent upon him for everything.
And that is the fundamental difference between those of us who are participating in this hunger strike, versus the slaves who won't even try to resist, won't even stand up for themselves when they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They would rather kneel, grovel, and submissively accept their misery, do nothing but whine about it, and cry "Bossman!" all day to beg for their food, shower, and infrequent solitary recreation. They prefer that miserable existence over enduring a bit of physical discomfort or sacrificing a few meals...while sharing dope stories about how they used to go weeks without food or sleep on drugs. I understand why they are that way, so I am not angry at them. I pity them. And for their sake, I hope the rest of us are successful in our hunger strike to benefit everyone, even those who lack the courage to defy their masters, or set themselves free of their mental prison of TDCJ’s institutionalized slave culture. More than anything, I hope we succeed, to set an example that shows others a way to effect meaningful constructive change, even against the most change-resistant prison system in America, and prove that it can be done.
Memorial Unit, Rosharon, Texas
20 years in solitary / ad seg
December 29, 2021
Words by AARON STRIZ
Photography by TEXAS LETTERS