“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 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 Socialist Worker.