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The Plot From Solitary

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The leaders of the strike “were blindsided,” Weills says. The protocols for force-­feeding, in place for a decade at the Guantánamo Bay prisons, are medically straightforward but still deeply invasive: A tube is inserted up a patient’s nose and down into his stomach, and restraints are used if the patient physically resists. Of the dozens of prisoners on strike, the leaders wondered, how many would go through with force-feeding? And would there be any power in resisting? “Our leverage was the threat of death,” Ashker told me. Now that was gone.

Until this point, the prisoners had thought of the guards—and, more broadly, the state—as their captors. But the state is also their warden and their protector: A prison is designed to separate convicts from society and prevent them from doing more harm, but also to shelter them and keep them alive. The judge’s order returned repeatedly to the problem of coercion. The specter of gang influence was so strong, Henderson’s ruling suggested, that the state could not trust that a prisoner’s advance medical directive had been made freely—that he had made his own decision about the terms under which he was willing to die. The strike leaders had thought that by volunteering to risk their own deaths they could compel the state to see them as individuals, and that in at least this one instance they could reassert freedom of control over their lives. But they had been wrong.

The men were still not eating, but they were debating how to proceed. Two prominent state legislators offered to hold a special hearing on conditions in the SHU. During the first hunger strikes, in 2011, Jamaa had been the hard-liner, but he is also the most politically attuned, and the promise of ongoing legislative scrutiny, something the prisoners had never managed to win, seemed to him a breakthrough. “That is a victory,” he told the others.

Eventually, somewhat reluctantly, they all agreed. On September 5, the 59th day of the hunger strike, the leaders of the Short Corridor Collective announced that they were “suspending” their action. The next day, Jacobsen met with each of the prisoners in their cells to explain the dangers of refeeding and the ideal way to manage it. Their sustenance once more in the hands of the state, they were gingerly, carefully, fed.

The end of the hunger strike was so deflating that it wasn’t until the second legislative hearing into SHU conditions was held, this month in Sacramento, that it began to seem plausible that Jamaa had been right, and that the hunger strikers had won something meaningful. At that hearing, even officials with the Corrections Department seemed to acknowledge that change to the SHU was inevitable. “We all agree that it is far too easy to get in and too hard to get out, and the stays in this environment have been far too long,” Martin Hoshino, an undersecretary of Corrections, testified. Hoshino and Stainer presented the Department of Corrections’ new validation process, which is meant to emphasize not associations but behavior. Tom Ammiano, the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety, introduced a bill that would prohibit any prisoner from being kept in isolation indefinitely.

Prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, but the duration and visibility of the hunger strike has helped make the subject politically urgent. Last week, New York State agreed to extensive new restrictions on whom it could confine to its SHU. This week, in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement.” Other states have also curtailed the use of isolation recently—Indiana, where change was compelled by a federal judge’s ruling, and Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, which had faced pressure from prisoners’-rights groups. These changes are too few to constitute a total rejection of the practice. But for the first time, it has begun to seem plausible that the American attachment to this special kind of imprisonment is not a national peculiarity so much as a generational one, and that a 25-year experiment may be ending.

To Ashker, these changes are the subject of much attention and contemplation. But they are also very abstract. Since the hunger strike, he has been more isolated than ever. Before last year’s strike began, he was moved to a new pod, which had the effect of breaking up the Short Corridor Collective and separating him from Danny Troxell, his good friend. Troxell had given Ashker a small photograph of himself as a memento. When the guards found it, they took it away and gave Ashker a major rules violation for having secreted it. “They said it was gang-related,” he said bitterly when we spoke in December. “I mean, it’s a photograph.”

His television has been taken away from him as a consequence of the rules violation. For all of his legal endeavors and strategic planning, he has received only two social visits since 2007. He is the only white man in his new pod and is surrounded by strangers speaking Spanish. On some Sunday afternoons, he listens to a D.J. called Sista Soul on a public radio station that broadcasts from Humboldt County and plays recorded messages to the men in Pelican Bay sent in by family members, ex-girlfriends, female pen pals. A rare recent call for Ashker, from a woman whom he has never met: “This is a shout-out of love and admiration to Todd in the SHU from Julie in Western Australia. I hope hearing my voice brightens your day. Bye for now, my love.”

He has had trouble getting comfortable in his new cell. The problem is his mattress. It is too short, and his feet dangle off the end. It is also too thin. “As soon as I laid on it, it flattened out,” he told me. He tried shaking out the padding, smoothing it out with his palm. “It’s good for a minute, but then as time passes, it collapses again.” The padding is now permanently separated to the sides of his mattress, so that as he enters his sixth decade of life, he is sleeping on a thin plastic sleeve on a stone bench.

“I feel like exploding,” Ashker said.


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