Terry Gross of Fresh Air recently interviewed Benjamin Wallace-Wells about his article in New York Magazine entitled “The Plot From Solitary” about the inmate hunger strike in California prisons last July. Four prisoners in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay maximum-security Prison coordinated the massive hunger strike that involved 30,000 inmates throughout California prisons.
Pelican Bay has 1000 isolation cells in its Secure Housing Unit, known as the SHU, and inmates incarcerated there are in a 11 by 7 foot cell 23 hours/day. They are taken out of their cell for one hour where they exercise alone in a concrete room. They have no social interaction, no classes, no programming, no visits, and are fed though a slot in the door. They never experience human touch other than to be put in chains or taken out of chains. Despite this deprivation, four leaders of rival gangs, who usually do not even talk to each other, were able to band together to mount a human rights protest.
Wallace interviewed one of the strike leaders, Todd Ashker, [allegedly] of the Aryan Brotherhood, who has been in solitary for more than 20 years, to find out how the men were able to coordinate the strike. Prison officials had reorganized the SHU in 2006, housing the top, most influential gang leaders in one small part of the SHU called the Short Corridor. The thinking was that if they housed them in a “pod” together, they would neutralize their influence by separating them from the lieutenants in their gangs. What it did instead was to bring the most influential men in the prison system into close physical proximity with one another.
Over the next five years, the men, Todd Asker; Sitawa Jamaa, allegedly from the Black Guerilla Family; Arturo Castellanow, allegedly a senior leader of the Mexisan Mafia; and Antonio Guillen of Nuestra Familia, started to read revolutionary texts and basically started a revolutionary book club. They talked about these books by shouting through the concrete walls and the toilet drains in their cells. As the years went by, they learned to think politically. They saw their fight primarily against the prison system instead of against each other. They began to write letters to activist web sites with their grievances about torture and inhumane treatment. Using the language of a human rights protest they were able to get the word out to prisoners throughout the California prison system to begin the hunger strike on July 8th.
When other inmates saw the names of leaders of the gangs on strike, they interpreted it as an order from the top to do the same. There was no explicit coercion but there was an implied expectation that other prisoners would follow suit. The hunger strike lasted for 59 days, only ending because there was a Forced Feeding order by a federal judge.
The strike brought national attention to the misuse of solitary confinement in our prison system. It has resulted in a bill before the California legislature to cap solitary confinement at 36 months, which is a fraction of the time many inmates have spent there. New York State has agreed to change and liberalize its policy on solitary confinement. When asked why he led the strike, Ashker said, it was one thing he could do “to improve conditions for the prisoners”.
This is only part of the story; please read Wallace-Wells’ article and listen to Terry Gross’s interview about this extraordinary human rights action by four rival gang leaders. It’s a example of what diverse people can do when united for a cause, even under the most dire conditions.