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.
Denis O’Hearn, a sociology professor at Binghamton University in New York, and his class corresponded with Ashker and inmates in nine other prisons as part of a study project.
Four years ago, O'Hearn, who lived in Ireland at various times since the 1970s, reporting on the Troubles for newspapers and lecturing at Queen's University Belfast, sent Ashker his 2006 biography of Bobby Sands. The book was circulated within the prison, planting the idea of the hunger strike in the minds of the inmates. Ashker told O'Hearn that 50 prisoners read the book.
“When they look at what happened in the H-Blocks, they thought, ‘we are not entirely helpless here – there is something we can do’,” O’Hearn said.
Prison authorities are sceptical about the motives of the strikers, seeing them as dangerous men and their protest as an attempt by gangs to regain control of the prisons. Others think differently.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, singer Bonnie Raitt and comedian Jay Leno are among the high-profile figures to have signed a letter this week to California governor Jerry Brown calling the security housing units "extensions of the same inhumanity practised at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay."
"We just can't imagine that here in the United States they have allowed this to happen when they are so critical of the other countries' human rights issues," said Virginia Gutierrez whose 60-year-old husband was held in solitary confinement for 26 years, until his transfer out of Pelican Bay in April.
Her husband, who was convicted of a double murder in 1982, was transfixed by a bird at the window of his new cell at Corcoran state prison in central California after years in his concrete cell, she said.
Amnesty International this week described the solitary confinement conditions in California's prisons an "affront to human rights" and called for an independent investigation into the death of Billy Sell (32), a lifer who was founded hanged in his security housing unit at Corcoran on July 22nd.
Relatives believe that they are fighting an uphill battle to change the prison conditions because they are championing the rights of prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
“People are saying ‘so what?’ Society doesn’t care about the prisoners,” said Dolores Canal- es, whose son (37) has been on solitary confinement in Pelican Bay for 13 years. “Society has cast them away as worthless individuals. People won’t even take up a fight they would take up for the rights of an animal.”