Death Row Goes on a Hunger Strike

Lionell Rodriguez: "There's a lot of good people on death row."
Randall Patterson

Last month, just before the state's 200th execution in the modern era, quickly followed by its 201st and 202nd, a letter was circulated among the country's most oppressed population.

"Greetings to all Fellow Death Row Convicts!"

It was inmate number 999002, also known as Lionell Rodriguez, writing to say, "we are all in the same predicament here." They had all been sentenced to death in a state where such sentences lead to death. Corpses were rolling off death row like cars out of Detroit, and no one on death row could stop it. Rodriguez's point in writing was not to save lives, but to improve living conditions so they might enjoy the time they had left. Living conditions were abominable. Some inmates had filed lawsuits over it, but lawsuits take time, Rodriguez observed. "Many of us do not have such time to spare. We need to do something NOW."

This brought him to his call for action: "We mean to engage a food strike, and before you begin to lose interest or discount the idea," he wrote, "give it your serious thought and consideration." Prison management certainly seemed indifferent to their desires. They would therefore have to arouse public sympathy for their plight, which Rodriguez thought a food strike would do. So what did they think? Would his fellow killers join him in nonviolent protest?

"There is no better way to start the new Millennium," declared Lionell Rodriguez, "than with unified struggle for positive change."

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice never officially acknowledged the protest. In press releases it was referred to as "the alleged hunger strike." Larry Fitzgerald, the prison spokesman, said it really wasn't a hunger strike at all. The thing began with all odds against it. Rodriguez's complaint was isolation, and perhaps the greatest proof of his isolation was his belief many people would care if he went hungry.

On January 18, at the Terrell Unit in Livingston, the leader of the resistance sat beyond many coils of razor ribbon, six locked doors and one plate of thick glass. His arms were tattooed with flowers. In his eyes and voice he had an intensity probably common among killers, religious converts and political protesters, all of which he has been.

He wanted to say first that he and his comrades were not just a pack of troublemakers. "There's a lot of good people on death row," Rodriguez said. "If anything, they're people like myself, who were just young and wild, did something reckless and wound up on death row."

One night ten years ago, he had been out joyriding with a cousin when, noticing he was low on gas, he pulled up to a stoplight and shot the woman in the next lane. A few hours later he was arrested driving her car, his pants soaked with blood, her brain tissue in his hair. People on death row had done reckless things like that. "Doesn't make us any more vicious than anyone else," he said.

Just shy of his 29th birthday now, Rodriguez had matured on death row and had become, he believed, a respectable person there. It had become home, and Rodriguez had never considered civil disobedience until conditions became intolerable. It was clear to him now that the prison system had no respect for him as a human being. "We're housed like animals," said Rodriguez. "Literally!"

Tensions between death row inmates and management have a long history, but they came to a head about a year ago, when seven death row inmates assigned to the garment factory threw off their chains and walked out. Management did indeed treat them like animals then -- shooting at them and setting the dogs loose on them. All seven were finally dragged back, one as a corpse.

Management's position was that death row convicts were actually very special people. If they didn't want to work, they didn't have to, but it was essential they maintain their ties to the organization. Walkouts would therefore not be tolerated, though sit-ins were another matter. After the escape attempt, death row inmates were locked alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. They would no longer have to go to work, but neither would they be allowed to exercise in groups, or to watch television, or to participate in the "advanced in-cell piddling program." The manufacture of little toy boats from tongue depressors was officially at an end.

As Rodriguez saw it, they were all being punished for something only seven of them had done. And their time in prison was not supposed to be punitive at all. Other prisoners were serving long jail terms for their crimes, but the killers had been sentenced to death. They were being incarcerated only until those sentences could be carried out. Thus, as Rodriguez wrote, if anyone has any right to privileges, "WE DO!"

Rodriguez told his men that a hunger strike of 14 days was probably too short to draw attention to their plight, but that 30 days was "too many." Twenty-one seemed just right. The strike would be even tougher than the old solitary confinement, where they got fed only once every three days. It would be a great "test of mental strength and self-will."

The strike had not yet begun when one death row inmate, Jermarr Carlos Arnold, issued a public letter denouncing it as "just a big hoax and con game staged by some Death Row flimflam artists and crybabies trying to cut deals for themselves." Whether Arnold had cut his own deal was unknown, but Fitzgerald, the prison spokesman, was soon distributing the letter to the media.

Perhaps death row convicts are not team players, or perhaps "mental strength and self-will" are not qualities they have in great supply. In any case, the vast majority on death row declined to fast. There was a core of 28 at Terrell who refused their food trays, but Fitzgerald still would not call it a hunger strike. The two sides could never quite agree on what a hunger strike is. Management maintained that it's when you drink only water. Rodriguez felt they could have a food strike and still consume fruit juices, canned milk and vitamins "for health purposes." He himself was drinking Ensure, which is promoted as a liquid meal. "Our objective," he explained, "was never to kill ourselves."

Rodriguez insisted he had lost 20 pounds, but none of the prisoners really knew their weight. After the scales showed they had put on a few pounds, the inmates became convinced the scales were rigged and declined to be weighed any further. Rodriguez sipped his Ensure and occupied himself with the mail. He had received only four letters of support, so he wrote more letters than he read. Mostly he wrote to the media. The major papers in Texas obliged him with short reports, each of them quoting Fitzgerald as he disparaged the hunger strike.

Jermarr Arnold had a suggestion: "What would be newsworthy and attention-getting," he wrote, "would be if prisoners suddenly started dropping their appeals in protest! Now that would be a bold and serious move."

But Rodriguez gave no sign of going that route. He had three more days on the hunger strike, and after that, if nothing changed, they might have to resort to the old tried-and-true, which was violence. A cornered animal will fight back, Rodriguez said.

"In the end, the public can't say we didn't try to do things right."

E-mail Randall Patterson at randall.patterson

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