Truthdig’s “Truthdigger of the Week” recognizes groups and individuals that speak truth to power, break stories and blow whistles. It is not a lifetime achievement award, but a recognition of newsmakers whose actions warrant attention, if not celebration.

Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But what if that degree of civilization is invisible to outside eyes?

Jason Walker has been incarcerated in Texas state prisons since 2008. Over the years, his life has been threatened with a range of weapons — from shanks to fan motors — and he’s been forced to intentionally harm himself so that he might receive protection from prison medical staff. After seeing a note stating that a hit had been taken out on his life, he barricaded himself inside his cell for days.

None of this is exceptional for a long-term prisoner in the notorious Texas system. What makes Walker’s story special is his work as an incarcerated investigative journalist. According to a recent profile in Texas Observer, Walker’s reporting on Lone Star State carceral conditions — which have earned him “quite a name for himself as a muckraker” — is the reason for the dangers he faces daily. “In 2018,” writes the Observer’s Michelle Pitcher,

Walker’s reporting from inside the Telford Unit in far northeast Texas turned him into a pseudo-celebrity within TDCJ. That year, K2, a synthetic cannabinoid whose effects can include hallucinations, permeated the units. Walker reported that inside, it accumulated nicknames: tune, toochie and — most ominously — drop-dead. A TDCJ spokesperson said three prisoner deaths in 2020 and one in 2021 were confirmed to be caused by “synthetic cannabinoid toxicity.” This wasn’t a problem isolated to Texas prisons, though: K2 was a major health concern in prisons across the country, contributing to 13 deaths in Arkansas prisons in 2017 and being called the cause of accidental deaths in Florida prisons by the Miami Herald.

His behind-the-scenes reporting, which pointed to guards’ alleged involvement in bringing the drug into prisons, was picked up by the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper. Walker said his reporting is meant to protect prisoners, to make things safer and correct injustices he witnesses in the prison. He said some people target him for “snitching,” but that’s a misrepresentation of what he does. 

Since the K2 article was published, he’s been transferred more than 10 times. Recently, he was transferred to the Powledge Unit in East Texas and put into protective safekeeping — a designation for prisoners who “require the highest level of protection in a more controlled environment than other general population offenders, due to threats of harm by others or a high likelihood of victimization,” per TDCJ. As of August 2022, there were nearly 1,200 prisoners with some sort of safekeeping status throughout TDCJ.

Now, PEN America’s Prison Justice and Writing department has organized an advocacy campaign on Walker’s behalf. The organization (created by PEN International, the century-old group dedicated to protecting writers and freedom of speech around the world) launched a petition “to protect the life of Jason Walker, an investigative journalist who exposed wrongdoing in the Texas prison system.”

The danger Walker faces every day is all too real. In a November 2018 article for the San Francisco Bay View, a national Black newspaper, he detailed this danger:

I’m sad to report that I was attacked and beaten by clansman as Black guards watched. I sent out a report on this but left out info I felt would cause the message to be banned, delayed or thrown away. This attack was in response to my November Bay View piece that circulated around the prison like wildfire.

Until I don’t have hands to write and eyes to see and a tongue to speak, I will continue to expose such attempts to repress my freedom of speech. As long as the oppressor recognizes it can use justified brutality to chill prisoners’ rights of exposing acts that shock the conscience and deter others from expressing them, they won’t stop.

Death is the only thing that will stop me; history has proven that Texas officials are more than up to the challenge. I’m here and I’m waiting. Make me stop. Shut me up. It took death to shut David Ruiz up, and that’s what it will take to silence me. I’m giving my life to the nation of the oppressed.

It isn’t hard to surmise why Walker is so heavily targeted. His journalistic work is a direct challenge to the officials in charge of his prison, as well as to the secrecy that allows the prison industrial complex to routinely abuse the rights of millions of detainees. There is also a risk of provoking the ire of his fellow inmates, as his reporting can in some cases be taken as a form of “snitching” — a major violation of the universal prison code.

Truthdig spoke with Walker’s friend on the outside. They are terrified that he will be killed and are lobbying to get him transferred to the federal Bureau of Prisons to serve out the rest of his sentence. Walker is looking for a lawyer to help with the transfer. Truthdig tried to reach Walker for comment but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said he’s on a “no-call” list with reporters.

The power and breadth of Walker’s work, as well as his courage, is evident at his blog, where he writes about a range of issues, such as unpaid labor issues, brutalization by prison guards and healthcare standards he calls, “Corporal punishment in deeds.”

For his bravery in speaking truth to power and to his fellow citizens, for devoting his life to “the nation of the oppressed,” and for showing us the degree of our own civilization, Jason Reynard Walker is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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