These are signs that the system either isn’t working well enough or isn’t working at all. Over the summer, when international television broadcasts began to pick up the news of the hunger strike and demonstrations were staged in Berkeley and Los Angeles and celebrities like Jay Leno and Bonnie Raitt wrote letters of support, Ashker and the others began to talk more broadly about what was possible. “A worldwide movement against solitary confinement,” Ashker explained. This was rhetoric, but sometimes the medium is more important than the message. The fact of the hunger strike—that men who had spent decades in as restrictive a prison as has been devised had convinced a quarter of the state’s prison population to starve itself—did not necessarily prove that their conditions amounted to torture. But it did suggest something else: that perhaps human isolation of the kind that Pelican Bay was built to achieve was impossible. Every hunger strike is a form of Roman advertising, a demand to be recognized: I am still here. The leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike, conscious of it or not, were making a second statement, too: Look at what we can do.
In 1987, Ashker killed another white inmate at New Folsom prison, entering the man’s cell and stabbing him 26 times. Prosecutors were convinced the murder had been an Aryan Brotherhood hit, ordered because the victim had refused to cut the gang in on his methamphetamine deals. When the case came to trial, Ashker persuaded his court-appointed attorney, Philip Cozens, to call another inmate, an Aryan Brother named Paul Schneider, as a witness. Prison guards brought Schneider to the courthouse in leg irons, and he and Cozens spoke about the upcoming testimony in a side corridor. When the conversation had finished, and Cozens, back turned, was walking away, Schneider attacked the lawyer from behind, with an eight-inch blade he had hidden in his rectum. Cozens survived the stabbing. He believes that Ashker was behind the attack, that the knifing was an attempt to provoke a mistrial. But the judge refused to halt the case, and Cozens, now accompanied by a bodyguard, continued to serve as defense counsel. Ashker was convicted of second-degree murder. Schneider wound up testifying anyway. Ashker, he reportedly told the jury, was “a good white dude.”
Ashker got his first swastika tattoo when he was 19, a seventh-grade dropout in prison for burglary. He says he was motivated partly by white pride and partly by the sheer juvenile thrill of doing something outrageous. He describes himself then as “a rebel at heart.” This identity exchange happens often in prison: an inmate fuzzes out the specific parts of his personhood and instead inhabits the most threatening idea of his race. But that tattoo, and the others that followed, have a context, prison officials say: They advertised that he was affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, the white prison gang that was then warring with the Black Guerrilla Family. Ashker denies membership in a gang, but by 1990, three years after the murder, prison officials had pinpointed him as an Aryan Brother. Pelican Bay was built to house “the worst of the worst.” Ashker fit the bill. In he went.
Ashker is six feet tall, with a handlebar mustache and somewhat wild eyes, but his speech is direct and tautly compressed. Even his handwriting exhibits extreme control: His script is impeccable. “Eager to talk,” is how a fellow inmate describes him. “They don’t give us a lot of time,” Ashker said tensely when we met. Because Ashker has few connections to family (his mother has visited exactly once, in 1993) and because there are few whites in the Pelican Bay SHU, the pressures of isolation fell more heavily on him than on most other prisoners. “You do a lot of self-reflection—you don’t have a choice,” he said. “If you think too much about the past, or the future, it gets real depressing. I look at it as, my life has been a waste of space.” He said this very matter-of-factly.
Prisoners in the SHU look for a salve against this abyss or a distraction from it. Often they nurse a grievance. “You get through the first four or five years on anger alone,” Jamaa told me. Ashker is, unexpectedly, an optimist, and he learned to channel his anger through the law. Shortly after moving to the SHU, he was shot in his right arm by a guard. Three weeks later, while under treatment by prison doctors, an artery in his arm burst and he nearly lost his hand. Ashker sued, and a federal jury awarded him $225,000. This opened his mind. He earned a paralegal’s certificate through a correspondence course. He has now sued the prison system 15 times—for forbidding SHU inmates from sending letters to inmates in other prisons, for refusing to let him buy thermal shirts to keep his injured arm warm. Once, after Ashker had represented himself at a legal hearing in San Francisco in which the judge ruled in his favor, he was driven back across the Golden Gate Bridge in chains. It was one of those perfect California days—sun shining everywhere. “There are these moments,” he told me, remembering, “when you realize that you are still alive.”