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The Plot From Solitary

A cell in the Pelican Bay SHU.  

No one had any idea how long the strike would last. For an action like this to have any effect, the four prisoners believed, it needed to be open-ended—the risk needed to mount that they might die on the prison’s watch. Ashker had studied the story of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who had lasted 66 days and whose death was horrible: He had gone blind, had begun to bleed from bedsores, had lost his mental capacities. The prison health department had done its own research and distributed a medical notice to all state inmates: Those without other health conditions can in most cases expect to live at least several weeks on a hunger strike. This was a tentative statement, though. Hunger strikes are rare enough that there is no good data, and the doctors had been reading up on histories of Civil War internment camps.

Jamaa thought his fellow inmates might need some concrete encouragement. His private fast the previous fall had lasted 33 days, and he believed he could have gone longer. Soon after last summer’s strike began, the four leaders were moved from the SHU to a unit called Administrative Segregation, and Jamaa, entering the unit, started to holler, “Forty days and 40 nights! Forty days and 40 nights!” If prisoners can be counted upon to know any literature, it is the literature of suffering that in the Bible precedes redemption. Jamaa had chosen his slogan with intent: They were Moses in the desert. At night, Jamaa would drop on his knees, put his mouth to the crack between the door and the floor, and yell: “Forty days and 40 nights!” Soon, new hunger strikers arriving in AdSeg were shouting the slogan as they were hustled in. It was then that Jamaa began to believe their movement had some possibility, some momentum.

At first, the fasting prisoners at Pelican Bay were lethargic. Then, after about a week, the nurses found them suddenly chatty and energized. “There were these pockets of brilliant clarity,” says Bill Woods, the chief nurse at the prison. “There is a certain point where your body equalizes out. It has this mechanism to survive.” In their temporary home at AdSeg, the hunger strikers exercised outdoors in individual metal cages, which for some prisoners provided their first view of the horizon in decades. Frogs crawled into the cages; the prisoners could see small wildflowers in the grass. For the first time in years, the men could look into one another’s faces. Jamaa told his sister, 20 days in, that he thought they could last another 60 days, which terrified her. When lawyers asked how they were holding up, one of the prisoners replied, “Not too bad. I can feel the breeze.”

This didn’t last. By late July, the prisoners in AdSeg were cold all the time. Ashker developed a constant pain underneath his collarbone. He started to notice symptoms of claustrophobia—tightness, panic—which in all his time in isolation he had never suffered before. Ashker has a thick chest, and he was convinced that the pain was his body consuming itself, hunting for nutrients. “I could feel the muscle flowing off my body,” he told me.

Over time, the Corrections Department emptied most of AdSeg, transporting dozens of hunger strikers to the state prison at Sacramento, closer to major hospitals. Ashker and his three collaborators were considered too influential and dangerous to transport, and so they were left behind—four prisoners alone, spaced out in an ­otherwise empty corridor of cells as long as a city block. On the weekends, they met with attorneys, and they learned that though the hunger strike had greatly diminished, a hundred prisoners around the state were still refusing food. At night, sometimes, they would try to strategize, shouting at one another underneath their doors, but often they found they were too weak to make themselves heard, and so they would return to their bunks and cover themselves with blankets to conserve energy. It was in this manner that the leaders of the California prison hunger strike approached the end of a summer spent without food, in the same way that they had spent much of their adult lives: in tense, anticipatory solitude.

Picture yourself in a car heading north from San Francisco. Six hours after you leave that spotless city—after you pass the blissful yuppie towns of California wine country, and then the redwoods and hippie outposts of Mendocino and Humboldt, and then two hours of vacant, foggy coast north of Eureka—you arrive in Crescent City, 13 miles from the Oregon border. Physically, culturally, Pelican Bay is as remote from the rest of California as the state’s borders permit. Plaques in the motels warn visitors of the danger of tsunamis. Topographically speaking, the place is a fortress of isolation: Alaska-like, rocky and vertical and misty. It is an amazing place to put a prison.