Originally published at MintPress News.
Update 2016: Alvaro Luna Hernandez converted to Islam, and now goes by the name Xinachtli. Envelopes to prison should still be addressed to his former name.
Call me Xinachtli ("Seed" in Nahutal) – converting to Islam & changing his name Praise be to Allah pic.twitter.com/6556AMfSPC
— Xinachtli (Alvaro) (@freealvaronow) April 12, 2016
AUSTIN, Texas — Dressed in a real prisoner’s clothing, an activist sat in silence on a busy college campus, alone inside a simulated solitary confinement cell drawn in chalk, on Thursday. Thousands of Texas prisoners spend about 23 hours a day in tiny confines with real walls holding them inside.
“Will you sign a postcard for my friend Alvaro?” asked Azzurra Crispino, another activist standing nearby.
The “prisoner” and his friend are part of Prison Abolition and Prisoner Support (PAPS), an Austin-based group that raises awareness about prison conditions while supporting the incarcerated. They were honoring June 11, a national day of action for long-term anarchist political prisoners held in dozens of cities around the world. For the hour and a half activists and supporters gathered under a shady tree at a corner of the University of Texas at Austin campus, the “prisoner” in the cell represented Alvaro Luna Hernandez, who has spent the last 13 years in solitary confinement in Texas prisons.
“My friend Alvaro”
Hernandez is serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated assault, a charge stemming from his arrest in 1996. But his story goes back even further — he became an activist while imprisoned in the 1970s for a murder he did not commit. Writing for Counterpunch in 2011, Max B. Kantar explained Hernandez’s radical transformation:
Alvaro educated himself about Chicano history, the prison system, and revolutionary political theory. He founded and headed up prisoners’ study groups designed to rehabilitate and politicize other inmates.
With Alvaro in the lead, a powerful prison reform movement swept across Texas’ criminal justice system and through the state’s federal courthouses in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Alvaro diligently studied the law and used his newly found skills to file an impressive array of constitutional and civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials.
Prison officials retaliated by putting him in solitary confinement for almost the entire 15 years he would serve of that sentence, before a journalist working for the Houston Post exposed the rampant corruption that led to his conviction. Freed from prison, Hernandez became a passionate advocate for prison abolition and criminal justice system reform, advocating for many other wrongfully imprisoned inmates.
But when Hernandez returned to his hometown of Alpine, Texas, to expose corruption there, he found himself framed for another crime by members of the city’s police force. Though the charges were later dropped, an act of self-defense landed him in prison. In July 1996, a sheriff arrived without a warrant to arrest Hernandez, and drew his gun when Hernandez questioned his actions. Fearing for his life, Hernandez disarmed the sheriff and fled.
“In a live interview on local television on July 18th following the confrontation at Alvaro’s house, [Sheriff] McDaniel told viewers that Alvaro had only disarmed him and neither threatened nor shot him,” wrote Kagan. But when interviewed by prosecutors, the sheriff claimed Hernandez pointed a gun at him, a felony crime.
Now 63 years old, Hernandez faces what is effectively a life sentence. To make matters worse, he was accused of gang activity by another prisoner, which landed him in solitary confinement until such time as he’s willing to accuse another prisoner of belonging to the same gang — a gang which does not exist outside the minds of prison officials.
Exposing life in a cage
Crispino, of PAPS, has been a staunch supporter of Hernandez since she first met him in October 2013. Planning to help a woman visit her incarcerated husband in a Texas prison, Crispino looked on a list of political prisoners and discovered Hernandez was at the same prison.
“I wrote and asked if it was alright if I visited, and he told me no one had visited him in years,” Crispino told MintPress News.
On Thursday, Crispino got about two dozen people to write to Hernandez — most of them had stopped to fill out the postcards which PAPS had already addressed to Hernandez.
“If you write to Alvaro, he will write back,” said Crispino.
But even more than providing Hernandez with potential new friends outside of prison, the action gave dozens of passersby a visual representation of life in solitary confinement. Inside the cell drawn with chalk, the mock prisoner wore Hernandez’s actual prison clothes and had his actual coffee cup and typewriter, obtained when Hernandez was transferred to a new prison last July. The typewriter is clear, to prevent prisoners from hiding anything inside it, and PAPS cleaned dead cockroaches out of it before using it in the protest.
“Alvaro says there are fewer roaches in his new unit,” Crispino told MintPress.
— Kit O'Connell (@KitOConnell) June 11, 2015
The action was inspired by a similar vigil held last year at Harvard University called “7×9,” in which students took turns occupying a 7 feet by 9 feet space, the size of the average solitary confinement cell. Jason Clark, director of public information for Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told MintPress that equivalent solitary housing unit cells in Texas are either 6 feet by 10 feet, or 7 feet by 10 feet.
According to a February report in The Huffington Post, 6,000 Texas prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement, with an average stay of four years. According to the United Nations, solitary confinement for longer than 15 days is torture and should be banned.
The PAPS prisoner could walk out of his cell at the end of the day, but Hernandez and thousands of others spend between 22 and 24 hours a day in tiny cells, released only for showers and exercise, with just guards, the occasional visitor and, sometimes, mail to connect them to the outside world.