Influence of Bobby Sands has stretched from Belfast to Pelican
Hundreds of inmates in California are on hunger strike to protest at indefinite solitary confinement
A prison guard outside a solitary confinement cell at Pelican Bay prison in California. Since July 8th there has been widespread participation in a hunger strike protest over indefinite solitary confinement. Photograph: Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Convicted killer Todd Ashker is the unlikely legal brain behind the largest prison protest in California’s history, a hunger strike which today enters its 27th day in protest over the indefinite solitary confinement of thousands of inmates.
It is a protest inspired by the 1981 hunger strike led by IRA prison leader Bobby Sands.
Ashker (50), a convicted killer covered in neo-Nazi tattoos, and three other inmates, representing three prison gangs, called the mass strike from the Short Corridor, a pod of cells in the most notorious of California’s prisons, Pelican Bay, in the north of the state, not far from the Oregon border.
Burglaries put Ashker behind bars but prison made him a murderer; he was convicted of second-degree murder for the stabbing to death of an Aryan Brotherhood gang member which has claimed was in self-defence.
More than 30,000 inmates in two dozen Californian prisons began refusing food on July 8th because the department of corrections has incarcerated prisoners in tiny windowless cells, for 23 hours a day in some cases, for more than a quarter of a century with only occasional reviews of their status.
There are 4,527 inmates, out of an overcrowded Californian prisoner population of 132,800, living in “security housing units”, a euphemism for the one-man isolation cells in four prisons across the state. The numbers on hunger strike have dwindled; there were almost 500 still refusing food this week.
Prisoners are moved to solitary confinement if they commit a crime in prison or if they are believed to be linked to one of the many prison gangs that plague the state’s prisons.
For criminal offences they can be held for five years; for associating with a gang, a prisoner can be held in the cells indefinitely.
The department of corrections can “validate” inmates as gang associates for something as arbitrary as having Aztec art in their cells. It does not have to reveal the confidential information on which a prison board reached its finding and can put an inmate into solitary confinement without review for six years.
To escape solitary confinement, prisoners must “debrief” the authorities. This, in effect, means snitching on other inmates, which amounts to a death sentence among violent prisoners.
Ashker, who obtained a law degree in prison, is among more than 400 inmates who have been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay; 78 have lived in these conditions for more than two decades.
Inmates are allowed 10 hours a week yard-time outside their cell. Their relatives say that in Pelican there is only a sliver of sky to look at in an enclosed concrete yard covered by frosted plexiglass.