A convicted murderer with alleged Aryan Brotherhood ties who has been kept in solitary confinement for more than a quarter of a century is driving the hunger strike that has been going on for nearly a month in California's prison system.
Todd Ashker, 50, who earned a paralegal degree while in prison, has been one of the most vocal inmates in the fight against the state's security housing units (SHUs), where more than 3,000 California inmates are housed, according to the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, a group of grassroots organizations and community activists dedicated to making sure inmates' voices are heard during the protest.
The focus of the hunger strike, which began on July 8, is a demand to end indefinite solitary confinement, which inmates say is tantamount to torture and has deprived them of basic rights, such as human interaction and sunlight.
It was determined in 1988 that Ashker had ties to the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, something he denies, according to a complaint filed last year in U.S. District for the Northern District of California by Ashker and nine other prisoners seeking an end to indefinite incarceration in SHUs on the basis that it is cruel and unusual punishment and there is no due process.
A hearing on whether the suit can be given class action status is scheduled for Aug. 8.
Perceived gang membership is one of the reasons many of the plaintiffs, including Ashker, were placed in SHUs, according to the complaint.
An estimated 30,000 of the state's 120,000 inmates initially joined the protest by refusing meals, but most did not last long. More than three weeks into the hunger strike, the number involved has dropped to 561, though only 385 have been on the hunger strike continuously, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. An inmate is considered to be on a hunger strike after they have missed nine consecutive meals.
The strike has united people across the often racially-charged prison gangs and includes members of the Nuestra Familia the Black Guerrilla Family and the Mexican Mafia, according to federal documents.
For 24 of his 27 years in an SHU, Ashker has been housed at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., which is located near the Oregon border and is a 355-mile drive north from San Francisco.
Considered among the most dangerous in the state's prison system, inmates assigned to SHUs are locked in 80-square-foot windowless concrete cells that can house up to two inmates, for 22 to 24 hours per day. A slot in a steel door is used to deliver food and mail, and for guards to cuff inmates before they are allowed out of their cells for exercise, according the complaint.
This hunger strike marks the third time Ashker and fellow inmates who have been placed in SHUs because of their alleged gang ties have staged a hunger strike.
"There's a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary," Ashker said in a video posted by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. "None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option."
Ashker's Criminal History Includes Burglary, Murder
A burglary conviction landed Ashker in California's prison system in 1982. Five years later, while at the Folsom State Prison, he stabbed another inmate to death in what prosecutors said was a hit ordered by the Aryan Brotherhood, according to news reports.
During his 1990 murder trial, Ashker's court-appointed attorney, Philip Cozens, was in a holding area with an inmate whom he planned to call as a witness when the man, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, stabbed him with a prison-made knife.
Cozens survived and continued on the trial when a judge ruled that declaring a mistrial would have been a reward for Ashker.
Cozens said he hasn't had contact with Ashker since the 1990s, but he recalled a "young man" who was "impressionable."
"There's a certain willingness and ruthlessness to execute other people to advance his agenda," he said.
Some people who know Ashker now say that after decades in prison, he is a changed man.
"He [Ashker] has learned the law and has tried to dedicate his life to helping other prisoners," said Denis O'Hearn, a sociologist at Binghamton University in New York who, along with students, began corresponding with Ashker in 2009 for a course about prison experiences.
Anne Weills, an attorney representing Ashker and other inmates leading the charge, said she's been impressed by the leadership and dedication he has shown to fight for better conditions in prison.
"If Todd came out into our business world today, he would rise very high very fast," she said. "He is very brave, risk-taking. He is one of the leaders in this strike and he wants to go all the way."
California Inmates Demand End to Indefinite Solitary Confinement
"Plaintiffs are suffering serious mental and physical harm due to their prolonged confinement," a federal complaint stated.
The United Nations has found that just 15 days in solitary confinement violates human rights standards and can do irreparable mental damage to a person.
Among the inmates' demands include adequate and nutritious food and an end to group punishment.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it instituted reforms in its confinement policies and procedures last year, according to an update posted on its website.
"The reforms place an emphasis on documented behavior, provide individual accountability of offenders, incorporate additional elements of due process to the validation system and provide a Step-Down Program as an alternative for offenders to demonstrate their commitment and willingness to refrain from criminal gang behavior," the update said.
"Moreover, gang associates -- a majority of inmates housed in SHUs -- are no longer placed in a SHU based solely upon their validation unless there is a corresponding confirmed disciplinary behavior at the time of the original validation," the update said.
Since the reforms, the CDCR said 382 cases of inmates housed in SHUs have been reviewed. As of June, 208 of the cases have been transferred or approved for a transfer to rejoin the general prison population, while 115 have been approved for a multi-step program that provides gradual incentives for inmates who refrain from gang behavior.