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The Plot From Solitary

Sitawa Jamaa (known by officials as Ron Dewberry)  

In 2006, authorities at Pelican Bay reorganized the SHU. Until then, the prison had often rubber-stamped SHU inmates’ requests to be moved to another pod, meaning that members of the same gang were often housed together. The reorganization created a prison within a prison within the prison, moving the most influential leaders of each gang to a wing called the Short Corridor, isolating them from lieutenants who had been doing their bidding. Which is how, not by accident but by some warped genius of institutional design, four men with what officials believe to be vast influence over the entire state’s inmate population came to be housed within shouting distance.

The men were wary around one another at first. But they were aging, and perhaps growing more reflective, and they had nothing to do but talk with neighbors they couldn’t see; the experience of the SHU is monotony in motion. Guillen talked about his son, who had been arrested; Castellanos about his brother, who was also in the SHU. They had grievances in common, too: Their isolation in the Short Corridor seemed to confirm to them that they had been singled out. Ashker grew particularly close to an older, politically minded white inmate on the pod named Danny Troxell. Eventually, ­Troxell and Ashker became something of a revolutionary book club. They read Naomi Wolf, Howard Zinn, Michel Foucault. The ideas that stayed with Ashker the longest came from Zinn: that they were all members of a single prisoner class and that racial animosities had been leveraged by the guards to divide them. “One of their purposes,” he told me, “is to sever all your ties to humanity.”

By 2009, Ashker was corresponding with a sociologist at SUNY-Binghamton named Denis O’Hearn, and on O’Hearn’s suggestion, he read a copy of a book the professor had written, a biography of Bobby Sands. O’Hearn had, in his book, emphasized that even though Sands had died during his protest, he had achieved a great deal in winning political sympathy for his cause. In studying Sands, Ashker read of an ancient Irish tradition called the King’s ­Threshold, in which a commoner who believed that he had been wronged by a nobleman would fast on the aristocrat’s door to gain attention and public sympathy. Ashker found this incredibly moving. He and Troxell began to talk about Sands’s example and about the risks and possibilities a hunger strike might offer. Jamaa, a studied revolutionary who had been reading about Sands and other hunger ­strikers for two decades, listened to Ashker’s epiphany with jaded amusement. But he did listen. “Every time we’d start talking about it, we’d notice the pod going quiet—we knew people were listening,” Ashker told me.

What Ashker and Troxell represented was a kind of “split faction” within the Aryan Brotherhood, Lieutenant Jeremy Frisk explained in a ­conference room in Pelican Bay’s headquarters building earlier this winter. Projected onto a screen was a diagram of the Aryan Brotherhood’s hierarchy. The three men at the top of the diagram, who he said composed the gang’s “commission,” had been ambivalent about the project, in part because Ashker was not especially popular within the Brotherhood and in part because they saw little advantage. But Guillen, Castellanos, and Jamaa, Frisk said, each had more personal pull among their racial groups. The Black Guerrilla Family has long been the most political gang, and its members could be expected to participate. The Pelican Bay gang-investigations unit soon noticed coded messages discussing the wisdom of a hunger strike passed among members of the two Hispanic groups and to their allies on the outside. In these deliberations, Frisk believes, Castellanos and Guillen were decisive. “Castellanos is, if not the most influential Mexican Mafia member, right there at the top. Once you put his name on something with orders, the southern Hispanics are going to do it,” he said. “And Guillen is the street-regiment general for the NF.” One former Nuestra Familia member says that his gang’s participation had been all Guillen’s doing: “It was Chuco Guillen, 100 percent.”

To see the yard as the prison guards do is to become alert to a hidden social physics in which the real actors are not individuals but networks. There is never just a hotheaded punch to a guard’s cranium, never just an enterprising drug dealer caught smuggling in supply. Political protests are never just that; they are always a conversation, in thug semiotics, among gangs and between gangs and guards, each move deliberated over with great care by a council of elders isolated in solitary cells. Guards talk with respect about the ingenuity of gang leaders, and with exasperation at the ends to which it is put (“a waste of human talent,” Frisk says about the SHU). Prison officials believe that gangs control most of what goes on among the state’s inmate population. In the high-security prisons, “almost everything happening out there has some influence of gang activity,” says Michael Stainer, a deputy commissioner of the California prison system.