On July 8 of last year, a 50-year-old man named Todd Ashker, an inmate at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, began a hunger strike. He had compiled a list of demands, but the essential one was that the policy that dictated the terms of his imprisonment be abolished. Ashker was housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, the most restrictive prison unit in California and a place of extreme isolation. Convicts stay in their cells 23 hours a day and leave only to exercise in a concrete room, alone; their meals are fed into their cell through a slot. Other than an awareness that they are staring at the same blank wall as seven other men kept in their “pod,” they are completely alone. Ashker has been there since 1990; in his view, he has been subject to nearly a quarter-century of continuous torture. “I have not had a normal face-to-face conversation with another human being in 23 years,” he told me recently, speaking from the other side of a thick plate of glass.
The sheer length of time inmates spend here has made Pelican Bay a novel experiment in social control. The California prison system allows any confirmed gang member to be kept in the SHU indefinitely, with a review of his status only every six years. (Prisoners who kill a guard or another inmate, by contrast, are given a five-year term in the SHU.) This policy has filled Pelican Bay with men considered the most influential and dangerous gang leaders in California. Ashker, allegedly a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood, had for years shared a pod with Sitawa Jamaa, allegedly the minister of education of the Black Guerrilla Family, and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly an important leader of the Mexican Mafia. In the next pod over was Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of three “generals” of Nuestra Familia. According to the state, these men have spent much of their lives running rival, racially aligned criminal organizations dedicated, often, to killing one another. But over a period of years, through an elaborate and extremely patient series of conversations yelled across the pod and through the concrete walls of the exercise room, the four men had formed a political alliance. They had a shared interest in protesting the conditions of their confinement and, eventually, a shared strategy. They became collaborators.
The men planned for the hunger strike meticulously. They had staged two more modest strikes in 2011, and afterward some had staged private fasts in their cells to try to learn how long they might be able to go without food. The four men had spent the spring putting on weight. Ashker had calculated how much water he needed to drink to keep his electrolytes balanced, his heart pumping: 240 ounces a day. In June, the men sent letters to an activist group detailing their grievances, explaining when the strike would begin, and asking other prisoners to join them. In letters to families and friends, they spread the word. Corrections officers throughout the state heard the news; on July 2, a few senior officials visited from Sacramento to meet with the prisoners and measure their intent. They left convinced the men were serious. Then, a few days later, the prisoners stopped eating.
The severity of his isolation meant that as the strike began, Ashker had little idea of what effect it was having or how many other prisoners had decided to join him. It turned out to be the largest coordinated hunger strike in American history. On the first day, 30,000 prisoners across the state refused their meals. Three days in, more than 11,000 still had not eaten. “We had expected hundreds, even thousands,” says Dr. Ricki Barnett, a senior official in the state’s correctional health-care system. “We did not expect tens of thousands.”
From the beginning, even the most basic matters about the strike—what Ashker and the others were after, why so many people joined them, what the strike demonstrated—were opaque, and profoundly disputed. To the prisoners and their supporters, this was a protest against barbaric treatment, and the SHU was both an outrage in itself and a symbol of the arbitrariness and brutality of the prison system across the nation. The strike’s leaders had challenged the SHU’s constitutionality in court, arguing that the limits it placed on social interaction violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and they had watched closely as a few other states, some pressured by prisoners and others mandated by judges, had de-emphasized solitary confinement. They believed they were part of a human-rights movement. But the prison officials saw something far simpler at work: a tactical maneuver by the gangs, acting in collusion, to end a system that had made it much more difficult for them to operate as they pleased.