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Texas Letters

The harrowing reality of life in solitary confinement

We speak to Damascus James, the editor of Texas Letters, an anthology of letters written by people incarcerated in Texas, about the battle to end solitary confinement in the state

Imagine spending 23 or 24 hours a day in a cramped cell, every day, for over ten years. Imagine forgetting what the rain or the sun feels like. Imagine being deprived of human touch – except for the prison officer who comes to put handcuffs on you.

This is the grim reality for people kept in solitary confinement. It’s hard to imagine the mental and spiritual toll this takes on a person, but Texas Letters offers a glimpse into this harrowing experience. Texas Letters is an anthology written by people who have lived or live in solitary confinement in Texas – the US state with the largest prison system in America and the most individuals in long-term solitary confinement, with more than 500 who have endured these conditions for a decade or longer. Comprising hand-written letters and monologues from incarcerated people, the anthology reveals power abuses, anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, mental health issues and in some cases suicide.

The collection is described as “exploring the loss of sanity, humanness, and, oftentimes, hope through the personal writings of people in solitary confinement”. But by amplifying some of those most marginalised and invisibilised to wider society, Texas Letters offers them a voice and archive where their experiences will not be erased, but heard and seen. Not only that, but Damascus James, the creator of Texas Letters, is determined to use these testimonies to lobby for the end of solitary confinement in Texas.

We spoke to James about why he started the anthology, the harrowing reality of the American prison system, and how he hopes the letters might help end solitary confinement in Texas forever.

What motivated you to create Texas Letters and document all of these prisoners’ testimonies? Do you have a personal connection to the prison system?

Damascus James: I’ve often been asked the question – why? Was I incarcerated? Did I have a family member affected by the system? I didn’t. Rather, it came from an indwelt interest to get to know people on the periphery – in communities that are hidden away, far-removed from society, often in remote rural regions. An impulse to get to know what life was like for them, who they were, where they’d come from, and where they hoped to go.

Texas has a reputation for being tough on crime and, as the state with the largest prison system in America – the most incarcerated country in the world – it’s a place that perpetuates this belief that prisons are, in many respects, a bulwark of public safety.

Not long after I began writing to and visiting people in solitary confinement, including those on death row, however, these long-held assumptions began to be actively destabilised. I saw a need for people trapped in lingering lies to bring truth, a corrective to the good guys-versus-bad-guys punitive fantasy, where words go [against] myth to show how the people in prisons are not pure monsters or heinous criminals deserving of the most torturous punishments, but rather imperfect people who are far more than a sentence and human beings often suffering from past traumas or mental illness. Their words were powerful and humane and deserved to find a wide, wandering readership.

And so, Texas Letters was born.

How did you reach out to prisoners? How hard was it to access them and allow them to speak their truths?

Damascus James: It started with the simple gesture of a letter, then, after time, face-to-face visits through plexiglass. Access was made difficult by censorship, grossly unstaffed facilities, and the serious lack of speed within the Texas prison mail system.

In our hyperconnected times, we’ve become hard-wired for instant gratification when it comes to communication. With letter writing and epistolary correspondence with incarcerated individuals in the state of Texas, that goes out the window. Both parties have to be very intentional, willing participants in the act of putting pen to paper in an effort to forge a connection.

Once the connections were made and the need to testify about torture became glaringly apparent, the internet became the obvious vehicle for sharing – a tool for protest by way of damning testimonials about a behemothic prison system hellbent on barbarism and brutality.

As such, the singular hero of the project is the plural collective, a growing number of voices united by extreme isolation and grief. Simultaneously, language is the mechanism for understanding situations that are, to most, nearly unfathomable – a dangerous mechanism in this context, and one that carries with it significant risk of backlash, retaliation, or worse. And yet, the letters keep landing in the mailbox, proving that, for some, risk is a necessary part of survival.

The ultimate hope is to end the torture that is solitary confinement. Texas Letters is, at its core, about a reorientation of perspective, shifting how we see and feel when it comes to punishment” – Damascus James

What are the kind of conditions prisoners you’ve spoken to are experiencing?

Damascus James: Horrendous, inconceivable ones. Beyond being unimaginably cruel, the conditions within solitary confinement eviscerate humanity, obliterate sanity and erode family connections en masse. It’s an unforgiving, all-encompassing hell replete with violence and atrocities ranging from sexual abuse to assault and rampant neglect that invariably leads to ill health, myriad manifestations of self-harm, suicide and a form of human erasure that is generally unknown by the majority of the public.

Because this is such sensitive subject matter, Texas Letters doesn’t polish or edit, the words and sentences of each letter are left bare, raw, intact in their original form. Instead of wielding an editorial wand and transforming the letters to sound more palatable or easily digestible, they’ve been left alone to churn in our stomachs. Nothing is hidden, euphemised or excus​​ed. Everything is exposed.

I know that in February you drove an LED billboard truck around the Capitol in Austin while legislators were convening for a session, with some of the letters exhibited on the sides of the truck. What has the response been like from people who have read Texas Letters? Have you had responses from the government or people in power?

Damascus James: Yes, I hired an LED billboard truck to drive around the Capitol building in Austin while the 88th Texas Legislative Session was taking place, to expose the excesses and corruptions of our times in plain sight. Words became light shining out of the darkness. Additionally, I sent letters and copies of the Texas Letters: Volume One book to house members, governors and key figures, urging them to work towards ending the torture of solitary confinement in Texas. Representative Terry Meza’s office was the only one I heard back from. Ms Meza has been actively trying to pass bills that would change the way solitary confinement is used in Texas but as of yet, these bills are dying on the house floor.

And so, the question remains: will meaningful changes come about? Will bills be passed into law that improve the situation for the thousands that live in solitary confinement in the Lone Star state? While prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, it is my hope that the visibility provided by Texas Letters helps make the subject politically and socially urgent – a veritable human crisis in dire need of attention and action. Because it is.

Why did you focus on Texas? What is the scale of the prison industrial complex in Texas and in America more widely?

Damascus James: For one, Texas was and is home. I have a profound love-hate relationship with it. More than just a massive prison system that normalises brutality, Texas’s punitive ecology has mutated into a time-tested torture machine: an apparatus that doesn’t just create the conditions for the steady decline of sanity and humanity, but develops the institutions that guarantee impunity for those crimes and even legalises them. It is a ruthless world sponsored by a complicit state where an endless escalation of harm ensues.

Far from debated, long-term solitary confinement is known to cause serious, permanent psychological harm, as seen in more than a century of documentation by recognised psychologists, sociologists, penologists and even the US Supreme Court. It is considered a form of torture by the United Nations and a war crime under the Geneva Conventions and yet it persists in Texas in unprecedented numbers.

While some prisons across the nation enjoy remarkable editorial freedom, most don’t, including those in Texas. To imagine a person in prison as a credible source in mainstream journalism is unheard of, taboo even. Texas Letters veers the other direction, letting the prisoners become, in essence, the journalists themselves – chronicling the shifting story of prisons and those incarcerated through their own words, and in so doing, unearthing those who are so often forgotten and overlooked from their penal tombs.

What do you hope that Texas Letters can do?

Damascus James: The ultimate hope is to end the torture that is solitary confinement. Texas Letters is, at its core, about a reorientation of perspective, shifting how we see and feel when it comes to punishment.

It’s also my hope that it serves as a timestamp of human history, a repository and archive that one day people will read, shudder, and gasp at what once was. It’s, in essence, an assemblage of voices crying out from the depths of a giant concrete casket that swallows lives whole. 

I’d like to be an optimist here, but Texas has a long and dark track record when it comes to prison culture, and has weaponised time in the form of shameless crimes against humanity. And so, the project is closely entwined with preservation, mixing written word with oral histories for generational archives that could hopefully stand the test of time and live to see the day when solitary confinement is a distant nightmare in the rearview.

Texas Letters: Volume One is available to buy now. All proceeds go towards the writers featured in the book.