PELICAN BAY STATE PRISON — Inside the concrete labyrinth of California’s highest-security prison, an inmate covered in neo-Nazi tattoos and locked in solitary confinement has spearheaded the largest prison protest in California history.
Convicted killer Todd Ashker and three other inmates — representing the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia and the Black Guerrilla Family — called for a mass hunger strike July 8, largely to protest indefinite incarceration in solitary confinement.
More than 30,000 prisoners answered.
Though segregated from others, the leaders, who dub themselves the Short Corridor Collective, have kept the protest going, with more than 600 inmates still refusing food.
Among the four, Ashker is the most outspoken of the collective and the legal brains behind the strike.
Some prisoner-rights advocates describe the intense and sometimes volatile man as a brilliant champion for California’s 130,000 prisoners.
Armed with a prison law library and a paralegal degree earned behind bars, Ashker, 50, has filed or been party to 55 federal lawsuits against the California prison system since 1987, winning the right for inmates to order books and collect interest on prison savings accounts.
“There’s an element within [the Department of Corrections] who would celebrate some of our deaths with a party,” Ashker wrote to The Times in March after prison officials denied access to him.
But others say Ashker is a danger, accusing him of being an Aryan Brotherhood member bent on freeing gang leaders from solitary confinement so they can regain their grip on the prison system.
“We’re talking about somebody who is very, very dangerous … who has killed somebody in a pre-meditated way,” said Philip Cozens, Ashker’s court-appointed defense lawyer in a 1990 murder trial.
Terri McDonald, who ran California’s 33 prisons until a few months ago and now runs the Los Angeles County jail system, said Ashker and his compatriots in the Short Corridor Collective are not fighting for rights, but power.
“From my perspective, they are terrorists,” she said.
Ashker has spent nearly all his adult life in California’s prison system — and much of that time, he has been in solitary confinement.
Born outside Denver, he wound up in Northern California after his father ran afoul of the law. Lewis Ashker is serving a life sentence in South Dakota for the 1985 murder of a retired police officer during a botched attempt to steal the man’s gun collection.
Ashker’s mother remarried and moved away in the late 1970s, leaving her son with a friend in Contra Costa County, according to his parole transcripts.
Ashker was 13 when he threatened another student to get his lunch money. It was the first of a long series of transgressions — among them truancy, DUI and burglary — that put him in juvenile halls and boys ranches for most of his youth.
Ashker ascended to state prison in 1982 at age 19 after being convicted of burglary. Five years later, housed at New Folsom State Prison near Sacramento for a second burglary, he stabbed another inmate 17 times.
According to testimony at his murder trial and a subsequent parole hearing, Ashker attacked the Aryan Brotherhood gang member while another inmate held a mattress over the door to block the guards’ view. Prosecutors said the killing was a hit ordered by the white supremacist gang. Ashker contended he was acting in self-defense.
During the trial, a defense witness — another prisoner and member of the Aryan Brotherhood — pulled an 8-inch shank and stabbed Ashker’s attorney four times.
Cozens, the attorney, believes the attack was an attempt to provoke a mistrial. The judge ordered the wounded lawyer to finish the case. Ashker drew a 21-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder.
In the 1980s, the Department of Corrections started building high-security prisons with isolation blocks called “security housing units” — known by inmates as the SHU, pronounced “shoe.” California now has four SHU prisons, holding more than 4,500 men whom the state calls “the worst of the worst.”
The toughest facility was built at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border. Ashker arrived there in 1990.
The Pelican Bay SHU is divided into pods of eight cells stacked four-wide and two-high, facing a blank wall. There are no bars. Each steel door is perforated to let in air and light.
Once a day, that door slides open. The prisoner can enter an empty concrete “dog run” for 90 minutes to exercise.
Kept indoors for years, men in the SHU take on a ghostly pallor, as if dusted with flour. They get less canteen food than do other inmates, less clothing, and are allowed limited belongings, fewer visits and no phone calls. Every privilege, from mail to medical care, is rationed.
For those accused of gang involvement, the SHU is an indefinite sentence. More than 400 have been inside Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than a decade; 78, including Ashker, have been held there for more than two decades.
They have common complaints of anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, inability to concentrate and loss of a sense of time, according to report by a psychiatrist retained by civil rights lawyers challenging the use of long-term solitary confinement.
“Conditions in the SHU may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson wrote in1995.
An air of brutality hangs over the SHU. Present on a recent visit was a drawing on guard lockers of a large and bloody Homer Simpson clad in the uniform of an officer. The grinning figure held a dripping knife in his meaty fist.
Some of those working with Ashker say that within this harsh environment he has changed, leaving behind violence to become an activist for inmate rights.
Prison officials “are so stuck in the gang business they can’t think people have evolved,” said Anne Weills, a former Black Panther activist who represents Ashker and other Pelican Bay inmates in a federal lawsuit tied to the hunger strike, alleging that long-term isolation is torture.
Prison officials reject the idea of Ashker’s change.
The top prison gang leaders of California are held together in one wing of Pelican Bay, called the Short Corridor, on the theory that it is easier to control them in one place, corrections officials said.
As a result, the leaders of the strike have shared adjacent cells.
In addition to Ashker, the collective includes Antonio “Chuco” Guillen, described in court papers last week as a top general of Nuestra Familia, and Arturo “Tablas” Castellanos, a Mexican Mafia leader. California corrections officials say the fourth is Ron Dewberry, a member of the militant Black Guerrilla Family who calls himself Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa.
Ashker, in a message to The Times, described the group as “a collective effort initiated by a multiracial group of long-term, similarly situated (SHU) prisoners who decided enough is enough.”
In August 2012, the collective issued a two-page “agreement to end hostilities” between racial groups in the prisons, focusing inmates against a common enemy — the Corrections Department — and “informers, snitches, rats and obstructionists.”
“We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!!” the agreement said.
The isolation of Pelican Bay helps break down racial and ethnic barriers, said Denis O’Hearn, a sociology professor at Binghamton University in New York who had Ashker and other Pelican Bay inmates correspond with students in his classes.
“It created some idea where [the prison system] is ‘them,’ and we as prisoners are ‘us,’ ” he said.
In 2009, O’Hearn sent Ashker a copy of his book on the prison hunger strike of Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, who died after 66 days of his fast. The book made the rounds of the Short Corridor.
After a group of Ohio inmates staged their own hunger strike in early 2011, Ashker said, the idea of a California protest was launched and “spread via the grapevine.”
Inside the SHU, the grapevine typically means communicating cell-to-cell by “fishing,” slinging a note to the cell next door with thread or shouting into the drain pipes that run beneath the prison and connect the pods.
The hunger strikers also relied on prison activists and lawyers who could carry messages to the outside.
For months leading up to the hunger strike, prisoner-rights organizations reprinted strike leaders’ writings in newsletters and mailed the publications to inmates across California.
Two hunger strikes staged by the Short Corridor Collective in 2011 ended after three weeks. Ashker vowed that this one would be different.
“We’re at war,” he wrote in a 2012 letter published by a prisoner advocacy group, “and the people in power are scared to death, and they should be.”
Since the protests began, Ashker and the other leaders have been put into even deeper isolation at Pelican Bay.