Texas Hunger Strike Echoes Long-Needed Prison Reform
Only hours from the Texas-Mexico border, female inmates at the Texas Immigration Detention Center are silently pushing back their food trays. Inedible meals, inadequate portions, general maltreatment, and poor conditions–all undercut by a deeper fear of deportation–have led to one of the most highly publicized hunger strikes in recent memory. And for good reason. Many of the inmates serve years, sometimes decade-long sentences, before being released, only to be immediately handed off to deportation centers like the one in Texas. And amidst new legislation for nonviolent drug offenses, there’s even more of a reason to lose your appetite.
Beginning this past weekend, more than 6,000 incarcerated inmates were released from federal prisons across the US. The initiation of a mass release is the first wave of legislation for nonviolent drug offenses hoping to curb the number of inmates and bolster jobs. It’s a harsh reality that ex-inmates rarely find employment and often end up back where they started in an endless cycle in and out of prison. Beyond stunting job growth and increasing the chances of further offenses, funding prison institutions in ridiculously expensive, costing the US over eighty billion dollars annually.
The mass release sounds great, but unfortunately for non-citizens facing drug charges in prison, the legislation doesn’t really apply to them. They may be released from prison, but then they’re just being sent to overcrowded detention centers like the one in Texas before being pushed back across the border. The mass release is supposedly only one part of larger goals to scrap the three strikes law and soften the court guidelines for imprisonment, but it falls short in addressing those non-citizens. Roughly 4,000 of the soon to be released inmates are immigrants, and more than 500 are being sent to Texas detention centers alone. A hunger strike seems to be the most direct way that these issues have been vocalized, and the women of Texas are not the only ones addressing it.
In a wave of upset, the tangled issues of reform have been echoed by New York artist Lech Szporer . This week, local New Yorkers were surprised to see a cage staged in the middle of a downtown street. Inside was Szporer dressed in orange prison garb, with a note posted on the bars of the cage reading, “Hello my name is Lech Szporer, this is an art performance. Nothing against you but the system needs to change. I’m not talking without my attorney.”
Szporer has been a long time prison reform activist, filtered in and out of the system himself on arrest charges for political demonstrations. He was arrested soon after the cage was staged – but only after a team of police officers sawed through the metal bars as cars and commuters swarmed by to watch.
If anything is evident from the week’s protests, it’s that discontent is widespread and reform is needed. From the sheer mass of inmates to the process of releasing them, the system appears utterly crippled. Inmates and artists alike are getting fed up with the lack of attention, and the internal problem of overcrowding in prison can’t be attended to fully without addressing the repercussions of a release. The new legislation seems to only shift the burden to deportation centers. Change is a slow process, but until some real hard hitting reform is raised, strikes and protests will continue, and the voice for change will only continue to grow stronger.
Images via Artnet, Gawker, LA Times