California’s prison hunger strike and shadow of Guantanamo

About 30,000 California prisoners this week began what could potentially be the biggest prison hunger strike in state history. Out of curiosity, I checked out the petition containing the prisoners’ demands. The first signature belongs to Todd Ashker, a convicted killer incarcerated at Pelican Bay.

He doesn’t sound so bad when you check him out at “Write a Prisoner,” the prison pen pal website. Born under the astrological sign of Cancer, he just turned 50, is separated, and in 2008, earned a paralegal degree.

“Hey, thanks for stopping by to check out my ad!” Ashker writes. “Believe it or not, you’re meeting a man who’s presently spent the last 27 years in a solitary confinement cell — buried alive, treated worse than a subhuman animal, deprived of all normal human contact, all the while doing what I can to maintain my humanity, some sense of sanity, largely relying on a wry sense of humor to keep the madness at bay.”


Documents: Hunger strike inmate demands

But reading news clips, I discovered that Ashker isn’t someone you’d want to bring home to your mother. A member of the Aryan Brotherhood, in 1987, he stabbed a fellow inmate to death at Folsom State Prison. In 1990, Ashker was transferred to Pelican Bay, the state’s fearsome high-security prison. There, he lives in the prison’s notorious Security Housing Units, or SHU, small, windowless cells where inmates spend about 23 hours a day.

Despite the isolation, in 1995, Ashker got into a fight with another prisoner, and a guard shot him in the arm to break it up. Ashker sued the state Department of Corrections, claiming the guard used excessive force, and that medical staff had mistreated him. A federal jury agreed and awarded him $225,000. He is also the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, aimed at improving conditions at Pelican Bay.

I know that guys like Ashker strain the impulse against cruel and unusual punishment. It’s why the struggle for prisoners rights is such a lonely one, and why prisoners resort to dramatic action like hunger strikes. Who wants to stick up for guys like this?

So many of these prisoners have denied the humanity of others, yet they demand we acknowledge theirs.

And of course, they are right.

As I read the prisoners’ demands, most strike me as reasonable and humane. Mainly, they want improved conditions in the SHUs and an end to the practice of placing inmates there indefinitely.

They want prison officials to stop putting them in indefinite solitary confinement because of “perceived” gang affiliations, and for officials to stop the practice of requiring them to “snitch” on other prisoners in exchange for better food or release from the SHU.

They want more nutritious food, and want the practice of withholding food as punishment to stop. They want one photo a year, one weekly phone call, more TV channels, access to correspondence courses with proctored exams, among other things.

The national embarrassment that is the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba notwithstanding, it is not the American way to lock people up and throw away the key. Even enemy combatants should have basic human rights, among them the right not to have a feeding tube jammed down their throats when they are engaged in a hunger strike.

In California, according to hunger strike protocols released by the Department of Corrections, no prisoner will be forced to eat at any time if he makes it clear in advance that that is his wish. In California, a prisoner has the right to starve himself to death.

It shouldn’t have to come to that.


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