Julio “Comrade Z” Zuniga, of the Industrial Workers of the World Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, is currently suing prison officials in two lawsuits, Zuniga v. O’Daniel, et al. and Zuniga v. Armstrong, et al.
Comrade Z is a delegate of IWOC Incarcerated Workers Industrial Union 613 #1 and is currently incarcerated in Richmond, Texas. In a letter providing updates on the lawsuits, Comrade Z reports that he has been labeled a “legitimate threat” by prison authorities, a label that can be used to deprive prisoners of amenities and move them to administrative segregation.
He fears that violence from guards and the misuse of prison functions such as chaplains and sexual assault staff have been used to discredit prisoners, pushing them to self-harm or suicide, writing: “Texas weaponizes PREA,” the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Comrade Z provides corroboration for IWOC founding member Brianna Peril’s reporting that for incarcerated people who stray from appealing their own criminal cases into challenging prison conditions or organizing in prisons, retaliation may be expected. Comrade Z claims that “non-gang member IWOCs are being targeted specifically,” and notes that prison authorities are “conspiring” with gangs and use “fabricated disciplinary cases, mail fraud, harassment, provocation, [and] intimidation” against IWOC members in prison.
While US prisons are required to provide access to courts, and law libraries are one way to facilitate this requirement, the Texas prison authorities control access to the law library, which may not be adequate to meet prisoners’ needs. Comrade Z sees the inadequate library facilities as a barrier to legal access, a point buttressed by IWOC member Jamon Hestand, who is also incarcerated in Texas and has petitioned Texas to improve law library materials.
In a 2014 memorandum emailed to TDCJ prisons, TDCJ Access-to-Courts Supervisor Frank Hoke directed the removal of the Offender Grievance Operations Manual from law library shelves, according to a report from the Maoist International Ministry of Prisons. Comrade Z reports that the State Counsel for Offenders Handbook, which provides guidance on the legal process for inmates, was removed in 2021, making it more difficult for prisoners to navigate the grievance process and get legal redress.
According to Comrade Z, prison educators are even instilling “social control” through a class meant to teach prisoners how to become “inmate cops.”
When asked if organizing is still worthwhile, given the retaliation, he shares the exasperation of having so many of his fellow prison organizers moved away. In Texas prisons, prisoners are forbidden from communicating with prisoners at other facilities, and being moved to another prison can be a significant deterrent. Being moved to a new location means losing personal contacts and often belongings. It can mean that visits from family or friends, particularly in the sprawling geography of Texas, become impractical or too expensive to maintain.
In Zuniga v. Armstrong, US District Court Judge Jeffrey Brown, in an order issued May 10, 2022, denied service of process, motions for appointment of counsel, and all discovery, pending an initial screening. Comrade Z is suing Darrington Unit Warden Bruce Armstrong and other prison officials for unsuitable conditions of confinement which he claims have led to more than 13 suicides.
In Zuniga v. O’Daniel, in an order issued May 23, 2022, Judge Brown again denied motions for discovery, appointment of counsel, and requests to provide additional identifying information regarding unnamed defendants, pending completion of a hearing to determine if the complaint “is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim.” Comrade Z is suing Chief Patrick O’Daniel and other prison officials for retaliation against IWOC members who reported policy violations to outside government agencies and media organizations as well as violations of members’ rights to communicate and organize.
Both orders cite 28 US Code 1915A, which says courts “shall review” prisoner civil actions to “identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaints, or portions of the complaint” which are “frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim” or “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.”
In both cases, Comrade Z has filed requests to add additional prisoner plaintiffs to his suit who have been harmed by similar actions, but the court has refused to entertain these amendments until after the 1915A screening.
While the barriers to prisoner suits remain steep, the human rights record of Texas prisons have been questioned on the other side of the globe. In a Scottish court decision last year, Judge Nigel Ross, when presented with information about the conditions in Texas prisons, refused to extradite a man wanted for charges filed in Texas, citing the fear of human rights violations.
Incarcerated members interested in adding themselves to the class-action lawsuits can send requests to the clerk for the US District Court at:
601 Rosenberg Street
Galveston, TX 77550
Both lawsuits are in the same jurisdiction.
Interested in learning more? Follow the latest news from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee here.