Historian Denis O'Hearn writes about his relationship with Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the 2011-2013 hunger strike movement in California prisons. This article first appeared in Counterpunch.
This is the story of my attempts to speak publicly about my friendship with Todd Ashker, a reputed “leader” of the hunger strike in California’s prisons. Since the latest hunger strike began on July 8, the California authorities have targeted Ashker for special attention, placing articles, editorials and op-eds in the California Press that paint him as some kind of neo-Nazi devil. The evidence they give for this portrayal is entirely from 1991 and before.
I know the Todd Ashker of 2013. For some years, I have corresponded with him and I have visited him in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay prison, near the Oregon Border.
People change. Todd Ashker is not the man that the California authorities and the popular press make him out to be. Yet the press has consistently refused to print the alternative story of Todd Ashker today. California’s top newspapers refused to print op-eds that I submitted to tell this story, instead printing ones that rehash the stereotyped view of him from 1991. They have no obligation to print my views. Yes, I am an expert of hunger strikes and isolated imprisonment around the world, having done research in Britain/Ireland, Turkey, and the US. These are the countries that have used this form of imprisonment most widely and I may be the only scholar who has done intensive work in all of these countries. I also published the definitive biography of Bobby Sands, a book that had a big influence on the men who are now on hunger strike. And I am among a handful of people outside of prison who actually know Todd Ashker.
Yet I am not concerned that California’s newspapers refuse to publish my views. What concerns me is that they have refused to publish anything that paints a more accurate picture of the men in Pelican Bay who have taken this most selfless and courageous act of hunger strike.
On July 8 of this year, thousands of prisoners in California went on hunger strike. Their cause was simple, and just. They wanted to end one of the most horrific human rights abuses in recent US history: the confinement of thousands of poor men in conditions that would cause tremendous outcry if committed against an animal, such as a dog. A law suit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights claims that long-term isolation in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs) is a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
Some 80,000 men are today held in isolated confinement in US prisons, many of them in cells no bigger than a parking space, often without windows, and with just an hour of exercise alone in a “yard” that may be hardly bigger than their cell and is likely covered with plexiglass or expanded metal grating. Some men go for decades without human contact…even plant contact. No contact with any living thing except for the occasional guard on the other end of a chain.
A PBS reporter asked one California prisoner, when was the last time he saw the moon? Puzzled, he thought for a while and then answered, “The moon? Oh, I don’t even know. It would have to have been back in ’98.”
I once asked my friend Bomani Shakur, in isolation in Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) since it opened in 1998, when was the last time he touched a tree? At first, he was also puzzled at the question. Then he said he thought it was in 1993. He told me that a leaf once worked its way through the metal grating that covers their “outside” exercise yard. He took it back into his cell to have some slight contact with nature until a guard confiscated it sometime later.
In January 2011, three of four men who are held in such conditions in OSP went on hunger strike. The authorities told the men that they would never give in to such pressure. But after thirteen days they relented and they granted the prisoners their demands: to be able to touch their family on visits, to have recreation together, to have access to computers so that they could research their cases. Basically, these death-sentenced men were asking the authorities to grant them the same rights given to anyone else on death row.
The Short Corridor Collective
The example spread to other prisons. Most significantly, it spread to Pelican Bay State prison in California, where a mixed-race group of eight men were held in solitary confinement on a single wing of the Security Housing Unit (SHU) nicknamed the “short corridor” since 2003 (they had all been in isolation much longer but in 2003 they were moved into a single pod and then kept together). They were in windowless cells and they were not allowed to have any direct contact. They were accused of being gang leaders because of things that had transpired in California prisons some decades before.
When they built the SHU in 1989, the California authorities instituted a program that they called “debriefing.” It was a nice term for snitching. In order to get out of solitary and in some cases even to get proper medical care, prisoners would have to snitch against other prisoners. Amazingly, most men have refused this act. An oft-cited reason is that they would face imminent danger from other prisoners if they did so. But the main reason for many, including Todd Ashker, is that snitching would break an ethical code: one should not put others in danger just to save your own skin.
Placed in conditions of long-term confinement without hope of release, the prisoners in the “short corridor” did what other isolated prisoners have done since time immemorial: they began to create a community based on oral communication, or, shouting out the door. They found ways to pass notes. In spite of the authorities’ efforts to separate them from each other, they built community. And the community transcended race. If these were men who had been isolated because of their leadership of racially-distinct gangs, no longer were they Latinos, Afro-Americans or whites; Black Guerrilla Family, Nuestra Familia, or Aryan Brothers. As prisoners in Lucasville, Ohio, had insisted twenty years before, during their 1993 prison uprising, the only race in the short corridor was the “convict race.”
The “Short Corridor Collective” debated politics and discussed their situation. They read classics by Tom Paine and Howard Zinn. They discussed Mayan cosmology. Then, in 2009, two of their members – men who were accused of being Aryan brothers and one of whom would later be named in the mainstream press as a neo-Nazi – took part in a course I taught at Binghamton University-SUNY. Along with the students in the course, they and eight other prisoners from supermax prisons across the United States, read classics in the sociology of prisons by authors such as Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault. They also read about experiences of other prisoners around the world, particularly political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands. The point of the course was two-fold: to restore voice to those from whom it had been taken, and to recognize and learn from the expertise of those who actually lived a prison experience.
As in Ohio, the history of Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers of 1980-81 held particular resonance for men in the SHU. For five years beginning in 1976, the “blanketmen” of the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison outside of Belfast had endured conditions of isolation not unlike those faced by the men on the short corridor. And in response to those conditions, instead of turning inward they built a vibrant community based on solidarity. They sang songs and learned the Irish language together. They told stories to each other every night. They built a strong political consciousness. And they took great risks for each other, smuggling contraband like pen refills, cigarette papers, and tobacco into the wings and devising ingenious ways to share their booty. If caught, the Northern Irish prison authorities meted out punishments to them including a diet of bread and water and horrific beatings.
The men on Pelican Bay’s short corridor learned a lot from Bobby Sands and his comrades. One of them, Todd Ashker, was imprisoned at the age of nineteen for burglary. In prison, he got caught up in the activities of the Aryan Brothers and he became heavily tattooed with symbols of white supremacy including swastikas. He was involved in violent incidents and a charge of a prison murder in 1987 finally landed him in isolation, first in the “bedrock” section of New Folsom Prison and then in the newly built Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay. In a horrific incident, in which Ashker insists he was set up by the authorities, a guard shot him at close range through a mattress, shattering one arm. He was left for days without medical care and in great pain.
In Pelican Bay’s SHU, Todd told our class, he went through a transformation. He met another prisoner who introduced him to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, which had a great effect on him. Soon, instead of identifying with Nazis, Todd came to revile the kind of state oppression that they had imposed on populations. He began to think of many of the state’s authorities, including the worst of the prison guards, as being akin to Nazis. The very word “Nazi” became a term of derision for him, and one that he has used in many letters to me over the years since 2009.
Most importantly, Todd learned to practice solidarity with all of his fellow prisoners (of all races and backgrounds). He gained a paralegal degree and he began to help others prepare cases against abusive practices by the authorities. He won six cases against the state of California for the lack of adequate healthcare he received after he was shot. The state of California just completed an 800 million dollar healthcare complex for prisoners. The state was dragged kicking and screaming into this program and they still have a long way to go, just as authorities including Governor Jerry Brown have inexplicably resisted US Supreme Court instructions to reduce their prison population from 174,000 to 119,000. How much of this would have happened without the pressure applied from Todd Ashker and other like-minded fighters for prison rights, many of them prisoners who gained expertise despite the state’s intentions to just warehouse them?
By the way, one thing that we learned in our class was that many men in solitary confinement in the United States are not there for violent behavior, and hardly any of them are there because of their original conviction. Even if they were put into a SHU because of a violent act, many men spend years in isolation because they practice solidarity by helping other prisoners, most often as jailhouse lawyers. The authorities call this kind of thing “disruptive behavior.” In California it can get a man “validated” as a member of a gang.
Now, I won’t pretend that Todd Ashker was a stranger to violence. Even he admits that he committed crimes and he deserved to be imprisoned. But I know about the debates and discussions in the Short Corridor Collective since 2009. I visited Todd in late 2012, his first personal visit since 2007, and we discussed the debates of the Short Corridor Collective at length. Todd is a militant, but he is also committed to nonviolent resistance. He was already beginning to think that way before 2009 but then he was deeply influenced when he read about the example of Bobby Sands and his Irish comrades. The lesson Todd Ashker and his friends on the Short Corridor learned was that peaceful protest is the most effective way to speak truth to power. He consistently held to that position and it is the position that the Collective has consistently put forward.
The California prisoners went through two hunger strikes in the summer and fall of 2011. They say that their studies of Mayan cosmology helped them to recognize the importance of timing. And their study of the Irish “blanketmen” taught them that they were not powerless. Like Bobby Sands and his comrades, they used the only weapons they had left: their own bodies and the knowledge that they were right. Indeed, the torture of isolation was so bad that they felt, as they still feel now on their third hunger strike, that it is better to die with dignity than to live in the conditions of hopelessness that the California authorities have imposed on them. While a core of prisoners led the strike and remained on it, they were supported at some points by thousands of prisoners.
After the 2011 hunger strikes, the men on the short corridor thought that they had reached an agreement with the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDRC) that would stop the horrendous practice of long-term isolation, and which would give prisoners ways to show good faith and to get out of solitary by good behavior rather than by “debriefing.”
According to the prisoners, the CDRC officials went back on their word. They stalled and never put the agreement into effect.
A year ago, Todd Ashker wrote passionately to me about the prisoners’ disappointment at the authorities’ proposals and he laid out his vision of the future, a future that is unfolding as I write.
“We’re quietly working to make the next action bigger than last year’s – involving a lot more general population prisoners – hopefully a combination hunger strike/work stoppage [all peaceful actions!]; & it will not be for 2-3 weeks this time!!”
He added, “I personally don’t expect to survive – but, it’s all good, for the good of the cause…and I believe that while my body will die my conscious/spirit/life force/soul??? is eternal! So, I’m prepared for this – without fear!!”
The Current Hunger Strike and the Press Offensive
And that brings us to the current hunger strike. Early on, officials high up in the CDCR recognized that the only way to fight this powerful protest was to win the war of the media. Clearly, they cannot win a propaganda war that is based on prison conditions – the conditions and effects of long-term isolation are simply indefensible, as many experts pointed out in a joint Congressional hearing last year that was chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. And the state is reeling from court decisions at all levels against their prison policies.
Since they could not win on the facts, the authorities set out to blacken the hunger strikers, particularly the four men from the short corridor who they identified as their leaders. How did they do this? They placed articles in the media that spread two ideas. First, they claimed that most of the hunger strikers are not fasting voluntarily but are doing so because they are afraid of being punished by the “godfathers” who lead California’s prison gangs if they do not participate. Second, they spread the word that the “godfathers” themselves were not at all concerned about the torturous conditions they face in the SHU but, rather, they were just trying to get out so that they could regain their positions of gang leadership within the general prison population.
The latter claim I find particularly galling because it is a form of blaming the victim. No-one should be tortured by months, much less decades, of the kind of imprisonment that men face in the SHU. As Todd Ashker recently told The Guardian newspaper (9 August 2013), “each minute has been torturous to my mind and body.” The men in the SHU don’t need an excuse for protesting. The conditions they have faced for twenty to thirty years are reason enough.
The most scurrilous claims, first presented in a story written by Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times (July 19), appeared under the headline “Gang members say hunger strike aim is to ‘sell drugs, make money’.” The article quoted two prisoners who got out of the SHU by “debriefing” and, reportedly, by quitting their gang affiliations with the Latino gang Nuestra Familia and the Aryan Brotherhood. One was quoted that, “The goal of the 2011 hunger strikes, from the perspective of the Aryan Brotherhood, was to get out of the [Security Housing Unit] because we knew it would kill the organization…We believed that if we were in the general population, we could sell drugs, make money and develop an influence on the streets.” Now, anyone who knows anything about gang politics knows that this is a patently ridiculous statement, as the Aryan Brothers hardly depend on a few guys in the SHU to stay alive, especially “on the streets.” But it is an effective piece of propaganda for the CDCR because they know that there is a large part of the population that is ready to believe anything about prisoners.
As a follow-up to this story, St. John contacted me, saying that Todd Ashker had told her about the influence my work on Bobby Sands had had in Pelican Bay and asking if I would talk to her about our relationship and about Ashker’s character. I agreed. But then I decided that I must do more. I decided that I must tell what I know about Todd Ashker because I am one of the few people who had deep political and personal discussions with him over the past years.
I decided to write an op-ed for the LA Times, to refute the black propaganda that CDRC head Jeffrey Beard and the two prison snitches had been putting into the media.
On July 25, I submitted my article entitled “My Friend Todd Ashker” to the LA Times Op-ed team. They notified me the next day that they would not use the article.
On August 6, the LA Times instead ran an op-ed by Jeffrey Beard, in which he repeated the claim that the “Hunger strike in California prisons is a gang power play.” Basically, Beard repeated the claims made in the first St. John story, about the purpose of the hunger strike and the character of the men from the Short Corridor Collective (a term, of course, that he did not use). But what set this new story in the op-ed apart from the earlier one was Beard’s fantastic claim that the SHU “is not ‘solitary confinement,’ in that prisoners can have visitors and, in many cases, interaction with other inmates.”
I have been there and I have seen the SHU. Visits are restricted to a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday, and one can only speak to loved ones on a visit through a phone and through security glass. When I was on my last visit with Todd Ashker, I met a sister-in-law of Arturo Castellanos, one of the “leaders” from the Short Corridor.
“I come here every weekend to visit my husband,” she told me, “but I have not touched him in twenty-three years.”
As for “interaction with other inmates,” this is done by shouting out the door. The fronts of the cells are covered with a porous metal sheet that you can barely see through. And, in Todd Ashker’s case, since 2011 he has been in a cell that has a sheet of plexiglass over the metal front. It is like living in a bubble.
Not solitary confinement?! Please…
On the day that the LA Times told me they would not print my article, I decided to send it on to the Sacramento Bee, on the assumption that the newspaper in the state capital would be another good place to try and get out what I knew to be the real story of the Todd Ashker of today, and not the Todd Ashker of twenty years ago. I never heard back from the Bee.
But, like the LA Times, the Bee responded soon after by publishing the most insidious couple of articles in this whole episode. An article by reporter Dan Morain, “the Real Story behind Hunger Strike” (August 11, 2013) repeated a set of accusations that had already come out in previous articles that were leaked to the mainstream press by California’s prison authorities. In it, a state-appointed attorney named Philip Cozens who represented Todd Ashker back in 1991, more than twenty years ago, claimed that he “never ran across anyone more dangerous than Todd Ashker.” Calling him a “sociopath”, Cozens told a story about how he was stabbed 23 years ago by an Aryan Brother named “Cornfed” Schneider. Without citing any evidence, Cozens simply asserts his belief that Ashker organized the stabbing.
One of the worst parts of the article is that it repeats the assertion that “[Ashker] and other gang leaders [sic] fomenting the hunger strike want out of security housing because their isolation limits their ability to conduct gang business, prison officials say.”
The only evidence these unnamed prison officials have for this is a statement by two men who snitched after the 2011 hunger strikes in order to get out of the SHU, the same two snitches on whose testimony CDRC head Beard relied for his assertions about the hunger strikers’ intentions in his LA Times op-ed. Like snitch evidence in general, this is most unreliable because these men would say anything to get out of the torturous conditions they faced. And now, as they are held in protective custody in “Sensitive Needs Yards” with the constant fear that the administration could turn them back to the general population, they will obviously say anything to protect themselves.
The article concludes that, “People who know Ashker say he is exactly where he belongs…there are people who walk this earth who are cunning and manipulative in ways the rest of us cannot imagine, least of all the pampered elite of Hollywood.”
Well, perhaps the pampered elite do not know Todd Ashker, but I do. I have a different story to tell about him but it is one that the California authorities and the popular media do not want to hear.
Not satisfied with their reporter’s claims, the Bee’s editorial board lambasted celebrities who support the hunger strikers, under the headline, “Why are celebrities doing bidding of prison gang leaders?” In their editorial, they stated that “civil libertarians and Hollywood celebrities” like Jay Leno and Susan Sarandon “ought to save their outrage”. Why? Because CDRC Secretary Jeffrey Beard told them that “the hunger strike has nothing to do with conditions and everything to do with gang leaders wanting to get into the general population so they can more readily conduct their gang business. We see no reason to gainsay his statement.”
In one of the most muddled statements of the new millennium, Beard “made clear” [sic] to the Bee’s editors that “he is trying to move away from long-term segregation, while reserving long-term housing in the units for truly hard cases.” Beard repeated his claim that solitary is not really solitary because inmates “can talk through the locked doors to their neighbors.” And, after all, if they get too bored they can watch one of 23 channels on TV, “including the four broadcast networks, PBS, BET and ESPN, plus educational and self-help channels and Bible channels in English and Spanish.” In a reckless endorsement of cruel and inhumane punishment, the Bee claimed that some prisoners “should remain” in the SHU and that “celebrities such as Peter Coyote, Jay Leno and Susan Sarandon and civil libertarians diminish their credibility by embracing the cause of gang leaders who masquerade as human rights advocates.”
The strategy of the California authorities, in the face of indefensible human rights violations in their SHUs, has been to blacken the names of the leaders of the current hunger strike, which is about nothing more than ending those intolerable conditions.
Justice: The Real Reason to Hunger
Hunger strike leader Arturo Castellanos has stated publicly that he does not expect to ever be released from the SHU. He is doing this for others. And Todd Ashker has told me and others of a small group of friends that he expects to die before the California authorities make substantial reforms to their policies of long-term isolation.
His words bring to mind a story that an Irish priest told about his efforts to persuade Bobby Sands to end his hunger strike in 1981. He argued and argued, but eventually Sands quoted John 15:13 to him,
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The priest knew that he was beaten.
Negotiations are in train that will hopefully bring an end to the worst agonies of the majority of prisoners in California’s SHU. Yet CDRC head Jeffrey Beard has repeatedly stated that he intends to keep certain prisoners in indefinite SHU confinement.
But why? What have they done to deserve this treatment? Let us look at the record.
In their discussions, the men from the Short Corridor agreed that peaceful protest is the only way forward. They renounced the use of any form of violence. Todd Ashker was a major mover in this collective discussion.
As a result, they drafted a communique in August 2012 that called on California’s prisoners to “collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.” They continued, “beginning on Oct. 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups in SHU, ad-seg, general population and county jails will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end. And if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!”
The first signature on the document was Todd Ashker.
The communique had more than its intended effect when a coalition of youth gang leaders called the Youth Justice Coalition issued their own statement. Saying that, “the men in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican bay are again leading all of us,” the gang leaders called on “all youth in the streets, schools and lock-ups throughout California” to “end all the killing and drama between hoods, crews, and races” and to “work toward lasting truces.” The statement called on young people to “take the same mentality and skills we have used to hustle drugs, bang our hoods and promote our crews to unite in a powerful movement to demand dignity, respect and equality for all our people.”
Todd Ashker is a major mover in the movement for peaceful change in California’s prisons and on its streets. I think one could say the same of the other three men who develop and sign statements from the Short Corridor Collective, as well as many others who support them. There are similar people who are locked up in solitary confinement all across the United States. It is not just a violation of the Eighth Amendment to keep them there. It is a waste that we do not find a way to utilize and encourage the talents and energies of men like Todd Ashker. We as a people are poorer for it.
Denis O’Hearn is author of Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation (Nation Books, 2006). He is Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University – SUNY, Visiting Professor at Boğaziçi University Istanbul, and has been Keough Visiting Professor, Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, Notre Dame University.