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The Plot From Solitary

Once the Short Corridor Collective, as Ashker and his conspirators started to call themselves, had a hunger strike in mind, even ordinary grievances acquired weight. In 2011, the SHU was put on lockdown after a disturbance in the general population. “We hadn’t even done anything,” Ashker told me. “I said, ‘Hey, this is just gonna be the norm. Everything that happens, they’re gonna come back on us.’ ” Among the Brotherhood, word circulated that Ashker and Troxell were “willing to go out in a box.” Jamaa wrote letters to prisoners-rights groups; if the Collective was serious, they needed some support from outside. That summer, the Collective staged their first two brief hunger strikes, which resulted in minor victories, like getting a pull-up bar and a handball in the exercise room. Even here, though, gang activity and political activity were hard to separate: Elrod says that when he and Ashker were briefly moved into AdSeg together, they took the chance to discuss Aryan Brotherhood business.

The next year, the Collective published a joint letter calling for the cessation of all hostilities among racial groups in prison. Jamaa had written the original draft and read it out to the others on the cell block, who each helped to edit it. To the four men in the Collective, the document felt like a great accomplishment, an end to the interracial prison wars in which they had spent their adult lives. They had some hope that the truce could eventually extend to the streets. “This is an historical document,” Jamaa said. “We are a prisoner class now.”

They asked the Corrections Department to post the letter in each of their facilities, and they imagined videos broadcast in prisons around the state in which they urged inmates to cooperate rather than to fight one another. The officials refused and issued Castellanos a rules violation when he discussed it with his family. The men in the Collective took it hard. Soon those same family and neighborhood networks that prison officials believe are often used to convey gang commands out to the street were carrying news of a coming hunger strike, and inside the Short Corridor the inmates were putting on weight in anticipation.

It felt freezing in AdSeg, all the time. The four remaining prisoners were convinced that the guards were blasting in cold air, trying to freeze them into ­submission. But each time the prison doctor, Donna Jacobsen, visited the AdSeg, she checked the thermometer, and it always read normal. Their bodies, she thought, must simply have lost the ability to regulate temperature.

Negotiations were static. The prisoners were demanding face-to-face meetings with top state correctional officials; these were refused. But the medical threat was escalating. Jacobsen, a former HIV physician from Miami, was focused less on the prisoners’ steady deterioration than on what might happen to them once they started to eat again. “Being on hunger strike isn’t the riskiest part; it’s the refeeding that can be incredibly dangerous,” Jacobsen says. The longer the prisoners went without nutrients, the more their electrochemical systems slipped out of balance. Refeeding “can basically stop your heart if you don’t have the right levels.” Her staff had offered vitamin supplements to the men to try to stabilize their electrolytes. After some initial resistance, they were accepted. But there was a paradoxical effect: “The vitamins rejuvenated us,” Jamaa told me. When a low-ranking official from Sacramento came up to meet with the prisoners, Jamaa rebuffed him. “I said, ‘I’m willing to die right now.’ ”

Each weekend, a veteran Oakland activist lawyer named Anne Butterfield Weills made the long drive up to Crescent City to meet with the prisoners. “I literally saw them shrink,” Weills says. She received a call from strikers who had been transported down to Sacramento: Did Ashker, Jamaa, Castellanos, and Guillen want them to continue to strike? What should they do? Newspaper and television stations were reporting a macabre daily watch—how many men were still on strike, how long had they each gone. One hunger striker had died already, though the coroner would later rule that he had strangled himself. There were still 69 men who had not eaten at all in more than 40 days, and many of them had written letters saying they would not cave. Weills was spending some of her time at Pelican Bay working on advance medical directives.

Then the standoff ended. On the 43rd day of the strike, Judge Henderson (the same judge who had, nearly two decades earlier, ordered reforms to the SHU) issued an order giving the state permission to force-feed prisoners who were at “near-term risk of death or acute bodily injury.” The order also allowed the state to override prisoners’ Do Not Resuscitate orders, if it had a reason to believe they had been coerced. Health officials, worried about the escalating risks, had joined the Corrections Department’s petition for the order. “I was concerned that the 40 or 50 leftover people might die,” says Barnett, the senior official at the department.