[Pnews] California prison hunger strike leader: 'If necessary we'll resume. This is war'
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 27 11:01:57 EDT 2013
California prison hunger strike leader: 'If necessary we'll resume.
This is war'
*Exclusive:* From solitary confinement at the brutal Pelican Bay, Todd
Ashker led a protest that shook the US penal system
* <http://www.theguardian.com/profile/rorycarroll>Rory Carroll
Friday 27 September 2013 10.31 EDT
*Todd Ashker enters the visitation cubicle and a metal door slides
shut behind him. He places his hands into a slot so a guard on the
other side can unlock the handcuffs. He rubs his wrists and sits
on the fixed stool. Scars and tattoos cover his arms. The hair is
grey and close cropped, the moustache almost white. He is much
thinner than the muscled, bulked-up prisoner I have seen in photos.*
A thick glass window separates us and a surveillance camera peeps down,
recording the scene. Ashker picks up the phone. I pick up mine. The
voice is strong, with a vaguely mid-western lilt. "So. You're here."
Here is Pelican Bay state prison
<http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Facilities_Locator/PBSP.html>, an outpost of
concrete and razor wire in a forest near California
<http://www.theguardian.com/world/california>'s border with Oregon. A
beautiful, rugged landscape where Pacific waves crash against cliffs of
redwood. You don't see any of that from the super-maximum security jail.
Except for the blue guard towers it is drained of colour, a grey
sameness coating gravel, fences and buildings.
It was built to isolate "the worst of the worst", the most dangerous
murderers and gang leaders. Ashker, 50, has spent most of his life here:
"They'll never let me out. I'm going to die here, I know that. But I
have a choice. I can slowly rot or I can fight. Fight to change things."
Ashker grew up in Colorado and moved with his family to California as a
boy. He was jailed for burglary in 1982, when he was 19. He got tattoos
-- Celtic and Nordic images, plus a few swastikas, and allegedly joined
the Aryan Brotherhood. Released, he was caught burgling again and jailed
at New Folsom state prison. In 1987 he repeatedly stabbed another
inmate, an Aryan Brotherhood member. He called it self-defence but a
jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 21
years to life. During the trial another inmate stabbed and wounded
Ashker's attorney, Philip Cozens, in what Cozens believes was an attempt
to provoke a mistrial.
"Todd is a very dangerous man in terms of his ability to do things,"
says Cozens, who is still a criminal defence lawyer.
Imagine approaching a dog in a meadow, only to discover it's a wolf.
The reason I have exchanged letters with Ashker, and am now visiting
him, is to ask how he and a handful of fellow inmates did something
They have been held in a Secure Housing Unit -- solitary confinement --
for decades. It is like being entombed. Inmates call it "the hole". The
cells, 7.6ft by 11.6ft, have no windows. Food is served twice daily
through a slot in the door. Once a day each man is allowed to exercise,
alone, for 90 minutes in a "dog run", a small concrete yard. Interaction
with guards and other inmates is negligible.
Yet from this bowel of extreme isolation Ashker helped orchestrate a
protest <http://www.theguardian.com/world/protest> which united black,
latino and white prisoners in a massive hunger strike -- 32,000 inmates
in 33 Californian prisons -- which shook the penal system
It fuelled a national and international outcry over the use of prolonged
solitary confinement in the US. The strikers called their action off
earlier this month, after California's state assembly promised to
investigate the practice.
"My arms are sticks now. Legs too," says Ashker, showing shrivelled
biceps. He says he lost 20kg. "But the strike is not over. We have
suspended it. If necessary we'll resume and go all the way, starve to
death. This is a war."
During our allotted two hours he is intense, articulate and wary. He has
largely shunned media interviews since 1995, when CBS's 60 Minutes
depicted him as a thuggish neo-Nazi. His emergence as a leader of a
multi-racial, non-violent campaign for prisoner rights begs questions.
Has Ashker changed? Is he now battling injustice? Can he and his three
fellow "principal prisoner representatives" (they avoid the term
leaders) change the system?
Ashker's journey from teenage tearaway to grizzled jailhouse scholar
underpins a largely untold story of how Bobby Sands, Mayan cosmology,
class-consciousness and the Arab spring inspired one of the biggest
challenges to US penal policy in living memory.
'A default management tool'
The US has been on an incarceration binge. From just over 300,000
inmates in state and federal prisons in 1978 the population has exploded
to 1.57m today, the product of policies like "zero tolerance" and
"three-strikes" which mandated jail terms for certain offences and
lengthened sentences. Include county and local jails and the US has the
world's highest incarceration rate, with blacks and hispanics vastly
There are signs of easing. Squeezed budgets and more lenient policies --
low crime rates softened voters and politicians -- have seen the jail
population dip since a 2009 peak. The San Francisco chapter of the
American Institute of Architects is urging members to refuse to design
execution chambers and solitary confinement cells.
Tens of thousands of prisoners, however, remain in solitary confinement
(estimates vary from 25,000 to 80,000). "It has become a default
management tool rather than a tool of last resort," says Laura Downton,
of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
The psychological toll of hallucinations, paranoia, self-mutilation and
suicide has been well documented. The UN special rapporteur on torture
says solitary confinement periods should last no longer than 15 days. In
the US it can last decades.
California, often steelier than its liberal image, has been especially
fond of the practice and has about 3,500 inmates in Secure Housing Units
(known as SHUs, pronounced "shoes"). Pelican Bay is a SHU citadel. "It's
the prison of all prisons. A legend among inmates," says Danny Murillo,
33, who is now studying at Berkley, having served time there for armed
Authorities say isolation is a necessary and successful tool to control
the leaders of gangs which once ruled bloody fiefdoms in Californian
jails. "Restricting the gangs' communication has limited their ability
to engage in organized criminal activity and has saved lives both inside
and outside prison walls," Jeffrey Beard, head of the California
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wrote in a recent Los
Angeles Times op-ed
Once an inmate is deemed a gang member, he is removed from the general
population and put in a SHU where he remains, without chance of parole,
unless he "debriefs" against other alleged gang members. Those who
refuse languish indefinitely. They get a TV and radio and access to a
library but are denied physical human contact. A glass screen separates
them from visiting family.
To maximise their isolation, Pelican Bay clustered the alleged leaders
of four gangs -- the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, the
Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia -- in a special SHU section with a
short corridor. Authorities did not anticipate that these men from rival
racial groups would manage not just to communicate but to form a bond.
They shouted through drain pipes and holes in perforated doors, passed
secret notes, sent messages via lawyers.
"You get to know each other," says Ashker. He denies being an Aryan
Brotherhood member. The swastika tattoos? "I was 19. Inside each group
shows racial pride, white, black, brown, all of us."
'A prisoner class'
The writings of Thomas Paine and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the
United States <http://www.theguardian.com/world/usa> planted the idea
that instead of race rivals they were a "prisoner class" with the penal
system as a common foe, says Ashker. Thus was born the Short Corridor
Collective, comprising Ashker, Ronnie Dewberry, who is black and Antonio
Guillen and Arturo Castellanos, who are latino. They issued a plea --
some would say an order -- for a truce among races in California's jails
Ashker is the most outspoken. Over the years he has earned a paralegal
degree and participated in dozens of federal lawsuits, including the
right to order books and earn interest on prison savings accounts. He
also won a big payout after a guard shot him in 1990, shattering his arm
and causing chronic pain often left untreated. "I've used the money to
fund more litigation," he says.
The main grievances are the isolation and the pressure to "debrief", aka
snitch -- policies seemingly engraved in granite. Some critics accuse
the prison guards' union, a powerful political force, of expanding the
SHUs to generate more jobs and overtime.
In 2009, Ashker read Nothing but an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the
Irish hunger striker who inspired a generation, by Denis O'Hearn, a
sociology professor at New York's Binghamton university. Sands died in
the Maze prison in 1981
after starving himself for 66 days, the first of 10 hunger-strike deaths
which fanned new life into the IRA and INLA campaigns against British
rule in Northern Irleand.
"At first I was against the idea of damaging myself. These" -- he
indicates hovering guards -- "are my enemies. They'll celebrate when I
die." The idea grew on him, however, and it intrigued the rest of the
collective. The 2011 Arab spring and the Mayan calendar's denoting of
2012 as the start of a new historic cycle convinced them to act. Ashker
We realised we had to take responsibility for change. And that they
couldn't do anything against a peaceful protest.
Painstakingly, the collective built support throughout the general
population. In July 2011 they launched the first hunger strike, which at
its peak involved 6,600 men in 13 jails. That number had dwindled to 440
by the time it ended, 20 days later, but authorities were rattled. The
scale was unprecedented. The media and likes of Amnesty International
paid close attention. A second strike two months later drew 4,500 men
and lasted 18 days.
California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ceded modest
reforms: more evidence of gang activity would be needed to banish an
inmate to the SHU, and a four-year step-down programme to leave solitary
confinement without snitching was introduced.
This did not satisfy the collective so in July this year it launched
another hunger strike, involving 32,000 inmates in 33 jails
Authorities called it an effort by gang leaders to manipulate public
opinion and reclaim control over jails. Supporters, including human
rights groups, politicians, clerics and celebrities, called it a cry
Strikers refused solid food but consumed vitamins and Gatorade, which
has calories. By the time the strike ended, on 5 September, after 60
days, the number of strikers had dwindled to about 100, with several
hospitalised. The threat of force-feeding
and the promise of hearings at the state assembly in Sacramento prompted
the suspension, says Ashker. He does not share the optimism of outside
supporters who hailed a public relations victory. "I'm not happy about
it but we have to wait and see what the politicians come up with."
'Isolation is becoming unacceptable'
Ashker says that despite the enforced solitariness, the same numbing
routine year after year, he has changed for the better. "When I was
younger I had problems with impulse control. I control it now, I
meditate half an hour every day." One of his favourite words is evolution.
O'Hearn, who has corresponded with and visited Ashker
considers him a friend. "Todd is dangerous only in the sense that he is
subversive," he says. "I just know for a fact he's a different man at 50
than he was at 19. He's very widely read and writes very well. He's an
incredibly bright guy." The solidarity of Pelican Bay inmates is tilting
debate, says the professor:
Isolation is becoming an unacceptable way to hold people for a long
Cozens, the attorney who was attacked by a friend of Ashker in 1990, is
more cautious. The man he knew then was a violent sociopath, he says,
but that was a long time ago. "There are changes that happen to people
between those ages," he says. He thinks solitary confinement is
overused. "There are guys who have earned their stay there but there are
others who should be released."
Ashker, whose pale, unlined face bespeaks decades without sun, does not
expect to leave the hole. His defiance is engrained and he scorns even
those guards who try to be friendly. "Don't matter if they smile. They
are complicit in the system."
Ashker's stake in the outside world is negligible. His mother and only
sibling, a sister, are dead. His father is serving life in South Dakota.
He married an English penfriend (he has an ad on writeaprisoner.com
<http://www.writeaprisoner.com/Template.aspx?i=z-c58191>), but it ended
after his hopes of parole evaporated. They wed separated by glass, never
allowed to touch. "I hope she finds someone to be happy with," he says.
When I ask Ashker if he envisages an existence beyond the razor wire, if
he yearns, for instance, to gaze at the stars or stroll down a street,
he looks puzzled. "I'm not getting out. My struggle is here."
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