More than 23 years after Texas began strict isolation for its death-sentenced prisoners, and less than a week after the latest death-row suicide, prisoners' lawyers sued the state in federal court, arguing that their solitary confinement is unconstitutional, the Texas Tribune reports. The lawsuit challenges the practice of confining death row inmates to small cells at least 22 hours a day, with minimal healthcare and no regard for their mental suffering. Most of the 181 death-sentenced men in Texas have been on the Polunsky Unit’s notorious death row for years. About 75 have been in these conditions for more than two decades. The men are represented by the law firm Hogan Lovells, which was also involved in the court challenge that changed Louisiana death row conditions in 2021.
At least eight death row prisoners have died by suicide in the last 20 years, according to prison records. The most recent suicide was last Saturday, when Terence Andrus, 34, was discovered unresponsive after hanging himself in his cramped cell. He had been on death row a decade. Texas’ male death row prisoners have been housed in isolation since 1999, soon after an infamous prison break by death-sentenced men. Before then, condemned prisoners could work, participate in educational programming and at times visit with their loved ones without a pane of glass between them. Now, on good days they get to take a shower or go outside for an hour, alone in a cage. More often, due to short staffing, they spend their days sitting on a metal bed. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the pending litigation. Other non-death-sentenced prisoners who have been indefinitely held in solitary confinement solely because they are gang members began a hunger strike this month to protest Texas’ isolating practices, as well. TDCJ has not wavered in its stance in that case. A spokesperson reported Thursday only one man was still starving himself without pause after 17 days; others have taken food breaks and started the strike again.