By Victoria Law / Truthout
This past April, Todd Ashker walked to the prison dining hall and ate at a table with other men.
“So, this is what it feels like to be around fellow human beings and share a meal” he recalled thinking.
This is an everyday occurrence in prisons across the United States, but for Ashker, this mundane meal symbolized the culmination of a decades-long fight. And he says that the fight isn’t over.
Ten years ago, on July 8, 2013, Ashker and over 30,000 people across California’s state prison system stopped eating. It was the start of what would become a 60-day mass hunger strike to protest the state’s use of indefinite solitary confinement for those alleged to be gang affiliates. It was the third time that people who had spent years in extreme isolation had put their bodies on the line to demand change. Their actions brought international attention to the state’s use of prolonged and indefinite isolation — and resulted in sweeping changes to prison policy.
That’s not all they changed. “The hunger strike changed the public narrative,” said Jules Lobel, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and attorney for Ashker in a class-action lawsuit against the California prison system. “The narrative they gave is, ‘Solitary confinement is torture.’ The logical conclusion is that we shouldn’t use it in modern society.”
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Ten years later, advocates are pushing to restrict solitary to 15 consecutive days. Last year, a similar bill passed both legislative houses only to be vetoed by the governor. Undeterred, lawmakers have reintroduced AB280. They call it the Mandela Act after former South African president and political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years in solitary confinement, which he described as “the most forbidding aspect of prison life.”
Three Hunger Strikes and a Lawsuit
By 2013, Ashker had been in isolation for nearly 27 years. His past 23 years had been inside California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, where nearly half the men were in the Security Housing Unit (or SHU). There, they were locked in windowless cells nearly 24 hours each day with no access to programming or face-to-face communication. Hundreds had been there for more than a decade.
The hunger strike was the latest attempt to change the prison’s use of decades-long isolation.
Four years earlier, in 2009, Ashker and Danny Troxell, another man isolated at Pelican Bay, filed a pro se complaint against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the agency that operates the state prison system, for its new Security Threat Group regulations. These regulations allowed people who had been validated as security threat groups (or STGs) to be isolated indefinitely. Validation could be (and often was) based on circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos, reading materials or associations with others. It could also be based on confidential information.
The only ways out of the SHU, Ashker had repeatedly said, are to “parole, debrief or die.” Debriefing, or providing information that incriminates others, invited false accusations by men desperate to be released from solitary.
Two years later, in July 2011, Ashker and over 1,000 others at Pelican Bay launched a hunger strike. Over the next three weeks, the strike grew to 6,600 participants. As reported previously, they issued five core demands:
- Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
- Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
- Comply with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
- Provide adequate food;
- Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for those indefinitely sentenced to the SHU.
The mass hunger strike not only drew attention to California prison policy, but also began shifting the narrative about solitary confinement.
“They weren’t asking for anything extreme. They were asking for basic human rights,” noted Jessica Sandoval, director of Unlock the Box, a national advocacy campaign to end solitary in the U.S. “That resonated with people.”
In late September, seeing no changes, they launched a second hunger strike. This time, over 12,000 people imprisoned across the state joined. They ended their hunger strike one month later after CDCR promised a comprehensive review of every incarcerated person whose SHU sentence was due to gang validation.
The following year, in May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights and four other organizations joined Ashker’s efforts, filing an amended complaint charging that Pelican Bay conditions violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That lawsuit was later certified as class-action.
Later that year, CDCR implemented a pilot program to release those held in the SHU on gang charges. Both incarcerated people and advocates denounced the program for keeping the most objectionable aspects of the old program and expanding qualifications for SHU placement.
On July 8, 2013, they launched a third hunger strike with over 30,000 people refusing meals on the first day. The strike lasted for 60 days, ending after lawmakers promised to hold hearings about the state’s use of long-term solitary confinement.
Dolores Canales’s son Johnny joined all three hunger strikes. Canales joined outside organizing efforts to draw national attention — and outrage — to conditions in the SHU, forming California Families Against Solitary Confinement.
“One of the ways that supermax prisons and solitary continue is by being under the public radar,” Lobel noted. “This hunger strike broke the silence. It became a national and international news story.”
“They created an interest and a movement,” agreed Sandoval. “People started talking about how solitary is torture.”
Ongoing Concerns After a Landmark Settlement
Two years later, in 2015, the former hunger strikers, their loved ones and attorneys announced what they called a “landmark settlement” in the 2012 class-action lawsuit. By then, more than 500 people had been isolated in the SHU at Pelican Bay for over 10 years. Seventy-eight people, including Ashker, had spent more than 20 years under these conditions.
Under the settlement, CDCR was required to place those who had spent 10 or more years in the SHU in general population or a unit that is not solitary. The settlement also required prison officials to review all who had been placed in the SHU for gang affiliation, prohibited future SHU placement based solely on gang affiliation, and banned indefinite SHU placement. Placement in Pelican Bay’s notorious SHU was limited to five years and indefinite isolation was prohibited. Nearly 1,600 people were released from the SHU. This included Canales’s son. In January 2016, she was able to hug her son for the first time in 15 years.
The settlement included a minimum of two years of compliance monitoring. That oversight has stretched to eight years.
Monitoring has revealed ongoing concerns around compliance, said CJ Sandley, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The settlement agreement created units known as Restricted Custody General Population, or RCGP, for people with ongoing safety concerns that prevent them from being in general population. It also prohibited prison officials from placing people in SHU based solely on alleged gang affiliation. But prison officials can still place people in the SHU for rules violations — and rely on confidential informants to establish a connection to a security threat group.
They did so 151 times during the second monitoring period, which ended in 2020.
In 2019, California prisons confined nearly 4 percent (or 4,742 people) in some type of restrictive housing.
In 2019 and again in 2022, federal judge Claudia Wilken found that CDCR continued to use fabricated, exaggerated or inaccurately disclosed confidential information to justify placement in solitary. She also found that prison officials falsely attributed statements to informants, highlighting a number of discrepancies between transcripts of interviews with informants and the memos summarizing those interviews that were used in disciplinary procedures.
Wilken also found that prison officials provided parole boards with alleged evidence of gang affiliation without acknowledging that their old system for validating gang affiliations was unreliable and violated due process.
Finally, Wilken found that prison officials placed certain men in restricted custody general population without adequate procedural protections, and violated their rights to due process by failing to provide them either with meaningful periodic reviews or with accurate notice of the reasons for their confinement. “These failures are likely to result in a significant risk of erroneous RCGP retentions,” Wilken wrote in her 2022 ruling, extending the settlement agreement for another 12 months.
In mid-May of this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argumentsaround extending, or ending, the settlement agreement.
“If the settlement agreement is over, CDCR could go back to the way things were,” Sandley told Truthout. But, she added, CDCR attorneys have already stated to the courts that the department does not intend to resume indeterminate isolation based solely on gang validation. Furthermore, the settlement agreement codified some reforms, such as creating the restricted confinement general population,into prison regulations.
Still, Sandley said, “There’s a huge loss in not having oversight. We’ve been able to see and realize a number of reforms over the last several years because of our ability to monitor.”
Among those reforms is monitoring retaliation against organizers. Under the settlement, Ashker was transferred to general population at another prison. For the first time in decades, he stood directly beneath the sun.
Thirteen months later, in May 2017, he was returned to isolation. Although Ashker had broken no rules and investigators determined that he had no safety concerns, high-level prison officials ordered him placed in administrative segregation. He spent the next six years in isolation.
This past January, Judge Wilken ruled that high-level prison officials were using this continued isolation as retaliation for Ashker’s organizing, which remains protected under the First Amendment.
On April 12, prison officials transferred Ashker to Ironwood State Prison. “It’s like being on a college campus,” he told Truthout in one of several phone interviews.
Paving the Way to Curb Long-Term Isolation
In 2022, lawmakers introduced AB2632, or the California Mandela Act, limiting solitary confinement in any jail, prison or detention center to no more than 15 consecutive days or 45 days within a six-month period. It also prohibited staff from isolating an individual in segregated confinement on the basis of confidential information or using it as a form of protective custody. The bill also banned solitary for people with certain mental or physical disabilities, pregnant and postpartum people and anyone younger than age 26 or older than 59. It also required prisons to offer at least four hours of out-of-cell programming each day.
Canales enthusiastically joined efforts to pass this legislative limit.
For those who require single-cell housing, Canales explained, the bill required that prisons provide people with programming. “It would ensure that nobody’s just locked, stagnant, in a cell,” she said.
“If it were to pass in an unaltered form, it would be an extension of what our clients have been urging for years — to use [solitary] for any extended period should be outlawed,” said Lobel.
Advocates cheered when both the Senate and Assembly passed the bill. Then, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom — who received a $1.75 million campaign donation from the state’s correctional officers’ union, which opposed the measure — vetoed the bill.
Undeterred, lawmakers reintroduced the bill in January. In late May, it passed the Assembly with 56 votes, which constitutes a two-thirds supermajority. Should the bill also achieve a supermajority of votes in the Senate, that would override the governor’s veto.
“It’s so historic to see where we’re at,” Canales reflected, noting that the California Mandela Coalition includes organizations that focus on disability rights and immigrant detention. The groundwork that she, other family members and advocates laid during the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes changed public perception of solitary confinement, paving the path to more ambitious changes.
That attention hasn’t been limited to California. In 2023 alone, nine other states introduced similar bills.
At Ironwood, Ashker has read the bill and said, “I support it 100 percent.”
Now out of isolation, Ashker is focusing on gaining his freedom. On July 8, 2021, California’s parole board denied his release in part because he had not completed many programs. “It really appears … that you put all of your eggs in one basket, and that being the legal process or filing lawsuits, rather than working on yourself and your defects and learning everyday tools to change your thinking and behavior,” parole commissioner Mary Thornton told him.
But during his six years in segregation, Ashker had been unable to access correspondence programs. Only after that hearing was he able to enroll in a three-month program.
At Ironwood, he is making up that lost time, enrolling in classes and programs. He is training to be a mentor for the prison’s youth offender program, working his way through 100 hours of classwork before he begins 400 hours of mentoring.
He knows he has these opportunities because of the years-long fight that he and thousands waged. “It was our collective unity that made it happen,” Ashker reflected.
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She’s the author of “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration (2021) and the coauthor of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (2020). Her latest article published by the Intercept is, “BLIND SPOTS – Sexual Assault Allegation Exposes Self-Policing Prison System.”