[Pnews] California prison hunger strike leader: 'If necessary we'll resume. This is war'

Prisoner News 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 
against injustice.

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."

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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