Support for D.R.I.V.E.
The Austin chapter of the CEDP has recently sent the following out to several activist organizations around Texas. To learn about the individuals in D.R.I.V.E., visit this site.
- The D.R.I.V.E. Movement: Resources for Education and Action
Prepared by the Austin Campaign to End the Death Penalty
What follows is a discussion of facts and strategy associated with the horrific conditions on Texas’ death row at the Polunksy Unit in Livingston. The men warehoused at this unit, aside from being sentenced to death by an unjust system, are living in conditions that, by any decent standards of human rights, constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Several of these inmates have heroically launched a non-violent protest against these conditions and have been met with a disproportionately violent response from the Polunsky administration and staff. It befalls all abolitionists and others committed to justice to stand in solidarity with these brave men. What follows, we hope, will serve as tools toward that end.
From 1965 to 1999, Texas’ death row was housed in the Ellis Unit. Inmates were allowed group exercise time and had access to the same resources as other prisoners. However, in 1999, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) voted to move all condemned male inmates to Livingston. The official rationale for this decision was overcrowding at the Ellis Unit, as several death row inmates were sharing single occupancy cells. However, there was also considerable political motivation. In 1998, seven men attempted to escape the Ellis Unit and one, Martin Gurule, succeeded (though he was found drowned shortly thereafter). This was the first successful escape on death row in 64 years. While a prison board investigation blamed negligent correctional officers, they also commented that group recreation and work time provided opportunities to plan such escapes. The TBCJ subsequently voted to make the move to Livingston.
Life on the Polunsky Unit
After being moved to Polunsky, the men on Texas’ death row lost virtually all the privileges they enjoyed at the Ellis Unit. The new facility keeps the inmates in 23-hour administrative segregation inside 60 square foot cells with sealed steel doors. They have lost all group recreation, work programs, television access (some inmates are allowed radios), and religious services. There are no contact visits allowed at Polunsky, meaning that the men on death row will never make physical contact with anyone other than prison staff as they move toward their execution date. Inmates are only allowed one five minute phone call every six months, their mail is often censored, the quality of food is particularly low, and they are given inadequate health and dental services.
The fact that such conditions can have profoundly negative psychological impacts on inmates is well-documented. Many of these men are losing their minds, attempting suicide, and abandoning appeals. Such conditions also set a bad precedent for conditions across the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
The D.R.I.V.E. Movement
The Death Row Inner-Communalist Vanguard Engagement (D.R.I.V.E.) consists of several (approximately seven) men housed on death row at the Polunsky Unit. Through a variety of non-violent strategies, they have begun launching protests against the conditions at Polunsky, in particular, and capital punishment, in general. The following is taken from the D.R.I.V.E. website (http://www.drivemovement.org) and summarizes the strategy the inmates have been using:
- * Actively seek to consistently voice complaints to the administration
* Actively seek to organize grievance filing to address problems
* Occupy feeding slots when feeding procedures are improperly done (Lack of sanitation by officers) and when food is improperly prepared (meager, malnourished portions: under cooked, spoiled) until changed
* Occupy day rooms when there is an act of abuse of authority by guards (verbal abuse; physical abuse; meals/recreations or showers being wrongly denied; unsanitary day rooms and showers being allowed to persist; medical being denied; paper work being denied; refusing to contact higher rank to address the problems and complaints) and when retaliation (thefts, denials, destruction of property; food restrictions; wrongful denials of visits; abuse of inmates) is carried out in response to our grievances, outside support and collective protest:
*Initiate sit-ins in visiting rooms, hallways, pod runs and recreation yards (when the above takes place)
*Deploy the use of Polunsky Unit video cameras so that protest may be documented (which can be accessed by the public)
*Non-violently refuse to evacuate cells when the above mentioned problems occur. Occupation will persist until change is implemented
*Seek to organize supporters on the outside to write petitions, letters, make phone calls, e-mail and send faxes to address problems and abuses at hand (and protests in front of the prison when possible)
*Educate prisoners to intelligently handle cases of abuse, attacks and oppression
Barriers to Victory
The D.R.I.V.E. movement constitutes a bold challenge to the powers-that-be in the TDCJ and the Texas state government as a whole. However, these men face significant repression and other barriers, making it absolutely crucial that activists on the outside mobilize around this important cause.
Officials at the Polunsky Unit have reacted harshly to these protests. When the D.R.I.V.E. activists occupy a space in protest of a fixable problem, they are often met by a SWAT team and tear gas. Often, when gassed, the men are not allowed to shower until a number of days after the incident, allowing the gas to corrode their skin. Other forms of repression include seizing of clothes, bedding, and other possessions from cells. A particularly disgusting punitive measure practiced in administrative segregation units throughout Texas is the food loaf. Rather than a standard meal, the inmate is given a baked lump of the day’s cafeteria leftovers. By all accounts, it is inedible.
Beyond these direct acts of repression, the TDCJ continues to turn a deaf ear to these protests. Officials are quick to claim that the D.R.I.V.E. protest has little to do with the conditions on the Polunsky Unit and essentially amount to nothing more than an anti-death penalty protest. TDCJ employees are also stubbornly committed to their job descriptions, drawing a very clear line between the issues they are qualified to address and those they are not. Throughout the Texas state government, one finds a number of convenient escape routes for officials, elected and otherwise, who would rather not address such uncomfortable issues. Diffusion of responsibility is common practice throughout the power structure in the state of Texas.
So, what is to be done? The anti-death penalty movement has a significant interest in challenging the horrendous conditions at Polunsky and the violent repression taking place there. The period leading to execution is a part of the death sentence and, thus, demands our attention. Furthermore, any demand for the rights of the condemned affirms what the state of Texas wishes to deny, the humanity of the people they have chosen to kill. Solidarity with D.R.I.V.E., thus, becomes an important intervention in the prevailing discourse surrounding the death penalty. Moreover, the conditions on death row are symptomatic of a broader prison industrial complex that is rotten to its very core, both in Texas and nationally.
The first step we can all take is to build a coalition around living conditions on death row. The Austin chapter of Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) invites all Texas anti-death penalty groups, as well as other organizations interested in human rights, criminal justice reform, racial equality, and other struggles for justice to join us in voicing our outrage at what the condemned are forced to withstand on a daily basis. It is crucial that we begin organizing and communicating in the interest of challenging this grotesque expression of state power. If you are interested, please contact the CEDP at email@example.com.
Both as a coalition and as individual groups, we must put the TDCJ and Texas state government on notice. Nothing will change at Polunsky as long as those in power are convinced they can continue in this fashion with impunity. Individuals worth contacting include TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston, Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chair Christina Melton Crain, Correctional Institutions Division Director Doug Dretke, the Correctional Institutions Division Ombudsman, Polunsky Senior Warden, Lloyd Massey, and elected officials. While most of these people will deny it, they are all in positions to influence Texas’ policies and are, therefore, all viable targets for protest. We have provided specific contact information in an attached appendix.
Exploiting media resources is also important. Write letters to the editor to your local newspaper and encourage the editors to cover the horrors at Polunsky. As our coalition will ideally organize a number of events in solidarity with the D.R.I.V.E. movement, we should begin building good relationships with the media now.
Finally, we must work with the men inside Polunsky. Establishing pen-pal relationships with and visiting the men of D.R.I.V.E. is not only a welcome reminder to these brave activists that they are not alone in their struggle, but also allows us to join minds and strategies toward forming a broad movement that challenges injustice within the TDCJ. If you are interested in getting a pen-pal and/or visiting a D.R.I.V.E. inmate, please contact CEDP member Randi Jones at RandiJ42@satx.rr.com.
The conditions on the Polunsky Unit are unacceptable and should concern all activists committed to human rights. The anti-death penalty movement, in particular, is well-positioned to challenge an apathetic TDCJ and state government, joining in solidarity with the man of D.R.I.V.E. and letting the powers-that-be know that we will not sit idly by as they mock the very notion of justice.
Appendix: Contact Information
Brad Livingston, Executive Director
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
P.O. Box 99
Huntsville, Texas 77342-0099
Christina Melton Crain, Chair
Texas Board of Criminal Justice
P. O. Box 13084
Austin, Texas 78711
Doug Dretke, Director
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Correctional Institutions Division
P.O. Box 99
Huntsville, Texas 77342
Correctional Institutions Division Ombudsman Office
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
P.O. Box 99
Huntsville, TX 77342-0099
Lloyd Massey, Senior Warden
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, Texas 77351
936-967-8082 Ext. 054