Texas Prisoners on Strike Against ‘Slave’ Conditions, Guards Threaten Discipline

Cameron Langford | Courthouse News Service

HOUSTON (CN) — Texas prisons are locked down twice a year as a security measure, but a union claims its call for inmates to strike to protest their “slave wages” is behind a series of recent lockdowns.

The Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, accepts prisoners as members. Its members, long known as the Wobblies, were among the leaders of the U.S. union movement, with ties to socialist and anarchist groups.

The union’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee announced on April 18 that its members had organized prisoner strikes in least four Texas prisoners that began on April 4, and led wardens to lock the prisons down.

The Texas prison system disputes that story.

“We have had no reports of offenders refusing to work. There was no work stoppage, contrary to reports by certain groups. There have been no units placed on lockdown because of threats of a work stoppage,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement.

Clark said eight Texas prisons are locked down now and guards are searching cells for contraband.

“These searches happen at least twice a year and are in no way related to a threat of work stoppage,” he said.

With more than 150,000 in its state prisons, Texas has the most inmates of any state.

They get up early.

“The day starts with wake-up call at 3:30 a.m. and breakfast is served at 4:30 a.m. Offenders report to their work assignments at 6:00 a.m. Every offender who is physically able has a job in the prison system. Offenders are not paid for their work, but they can earn privileges as a result of good work habits,” according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The IWW says Texas inmates are not paid for work that ranges from making clothes and mattresses to janitorial duties and farming.

The Texas prison system grows 24 crops and has a 10,000-head herd of cattle. It also runs pork and beef slaughterhouses and a vegetable cannery.

The union also is demanding a reform of Texas’ parole system: a change to a “presumptive parole system,” in which inmates are paroled at the earliest possible date.

It also wants the state to repeal the $100 medical co-pay it charges inmates; an independent committee appointed to review prisoner grievances; attorneys appointed for inmates for habeas corpus cases; and, perhaps most importantly for the sweltering Texas summers, air-conditioning, which no Texas prison provides for its inmates.

Nicholas Onwukwe, 26, co-chair of the union’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, says medical care is a fundamental right for prisoners.

“There should be no co-pay, for medical. People are in prison involuntarily. If they cannot provide them with appropriate medical care, as is their right, then they should be released in order to go and seek the care they need,” he said in an email.

Living conditions in Texas prisons are deplorable, the organizing committee says.

The mother of an inmate at the McConnell Unit, a prison 100 miles south of San Antonio that operates a garment factory, said her son’s complaints to prison officials about his rundown cell fell on deaf ears.

“My son was in a cell that had a 2-inch crack in the wall. When it rained the water came in through there, spiders came in through there, lizards, you name it, it came through there. And when he told them they said, ‘Oh, why are you afraid of a lizard?'” The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee posted the interview on its blog on April 18.

The woman said guards threatened to discipline any prisoners who strike.

“They already told several inmates my son knows in the facility that if they stop working that they’ll get major cases just because they refuse to go to work,” she said.

Catching a case is prison-speak for a disciplinary action that can take away the “good time” prisoners earn by working and going to school, an important factor for parole boards.

Jennifer Erschabek is executive director of the Texas Inmates Families Association, which supports prisoners and their families by pushing for new legislation and meeting with prison officials to advocate for policy changes. She got involved with the nonprofit in 2002 when her son was incarcerated.

Erschabek described the prison lockdowns, confirming TDCJ spokesman Clark’s statement about their frequency.

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“They do two annual lockdowns a year and that’s kind of just to go through and clean out all the stuff from the bunks and cells so prisoners don’t accumulate a lot of stuff and it gives the guards a chance to confiscate any contraband they might have,” Erschabek said in a telephone interview.

During lockdowns prisoners are confined to their cells or living areas and do not have access to commissary or school, but they may receive visitors.

Their meals are altered to a rudimentary menu during lockdowns. Inmates get “Johnny sacks” with peanut butter or bologna sandwiches, a hardboiled egg and a prune, Erschabek said.

The Jester III Unit, an 800-inmate prison for disabled or injured prisoners in Richmond, 30 miles southwest of Houston, had just got off lockdown, Erschabek said Thursday.

“When they got off lockdown they got squash, green beans, pinto beans and a small piece of chicken. So they get a lot of crop food that they raise in the gardens,” she said.

Robert Elzner is a Texas Inmates Families Association board member.

His stepson is incarcerated in the Jester III Unit. He told Courthouse News on Thursday that the unit was locked down from April 14 to April 19, but it had nothing to do with any threatened prisoner strike.

“It was not the strike. I don’t believe any of the prisons that have gone on lockdown have anything to do with the strike because most people within the prison system are not going along with it. But IWCC is putting that out and saying that this is the cause of it,” he said.

Elzner said he did not want to speculate on why the prison was locked down because not even his son and other inmates know for sure why it happened.

But Onwukwe, with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, said the Texas prison system is simply trying to cover up unrest among its inmates.

Published by Courthouse News Service.