Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 23 of the Hunger Strike: Light and Shadow in Press Coverage

Two interesting newspaper articles came out recently, bracketing the range of public opinion about the California inmate hunger strike.

The first piece, in the Los Angeles Times, is a profile of Todd Ashker, one of the leaders of the hunger strike, part of the Short Corridor collective, described by the article as the "legal mind" behind the strike. Ahsker's long and violent criminal record and his membership in the infamous Aryan Brotherhood are examined at length, as is the stabbing of his defense attorney during his trial.

Armed with a prison law library and a paralegal degree earned behind bars, Ashker, 50, has filed or been party to 55 federal lawsuits against the California prison system since 1987, winning the right for inmates to order books and collect interest on prison savings accounts.

"There's an element within [the Department of Corrections] who would celebrate some of our deaths with a party," Ashker wrote to The Times in March after prison officials denied access to him.

But others say Ashker is a danger, accusing him of being an Aryan Brotherhood member bent on freeing gang leaders from solitary confinement so they can regain their grip on the prison system.

"We're talking about somebody who is very, very dangerous … who has killed somebody in a pre-meditated way," said Philip Cozens, Ashker's court-appointed defense lawyer in a 1990 murder trial.

Terri McDonald, who ran California's 33 prisons until a few months ago and now runs the Los Angeles County jail system, said Ashker and his compatriots in the Short Corridor Collective are not fighting for rights, but power.

"From my perspective, they are terrorists," she said.

Ashker has spent nearly all his adult life in California's prison system — and much of that time, he has been in solitary confinement. 

Ashker has an intimidating record, indeed, and an unappetizing gang affiliation. But that is how someone ends up in isolation in Pelican Bay or in Corcoran: By committing crime and by being classified as a gang member. The question readers might want to ask themselves is, are we prepared for the moral slippery slope that starts with treating folks like Ashker as not human, and not deserving of basic dignity?

I've posted before about why I consider myself a left realist, rather than a radical abolitionist. I don't care for incessant recitations of the prison industrial complex mantra (frankly, I find this a useless argument with middle-class taxpayers), and I don't think that all prisoners are political prisoners. And I do think that some folks need to be in prison, for long periods of time, and perhaps Todd Ashker is one of them. I do, however, think that far less people should be incarcerated, and that holding 80,000 people nationwide under conditions that do not befit living human beings, depriving them of all human contact and offering inappropriate ways out, is categorically outrageous, no matter what crimes they perpetuated.

I am, apparently, not alone: Today's San Francisco Chronicle story lists many thinkers, actors, and political figures, including Jay Leno, Gloria Steinem, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Coyote, and Noam Chomsky, who oppose solitary confinement and support the hunger strikers.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the prison's security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, many of them for indeterminate terms of more than 10 years.

The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than "debriefing," which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for "snitching."

The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions — which include confinement to the cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Maybe this support of the hunger strikers will convey the message that even inmates who commit truly heinous crimes are still human beings, and that cruelty and indignity cannot be justified as being begotten by cruelty and indignity.

Thanks to Tom Oster and to David Takacs for the links.


Unknown said...

I'll preface what I say by acknowledging that sticking 80,000 people in SHU/Supermax-type units nationwide is probably excessive and, at best, is the sort of overbroad application of a specific and extreme remedy that you get out of bureaucracies. They have one hammer (SHU), and every problem looks like a nail. I also don't doubt that building and staffing SHU units benefits both prison construction concerns and correctional unions, making them interested parties in keeping them occupied. And I concede that the validation and debrief process is also arbitrary and unfair.

Having said all that, in dealing with the likes of Mr. Ashker and similar prisoners, dangerous gang members who appear to be ready to take any opportunity they're left with to hurt or kill staff, other prisoners, or even people on the street, what do critics of SHU suggest as an alternative? Running the system the way it was done before the Corcoran and Pelican Bay SHUs were set up, when Eme, AB, and the rest held sway, doesn't seem like a viable alternative. Allowing prisoners to be "taxed," forced into prostitution, or into joining a gang themselves, for fear of violence being inflicted on them or their families, laps SHU by a mile as far as "cruel and unusual" goes. Given that as an alternative, I see SHU as less a punishment, and more as an administrative measure to protect others. Do SHU critics have another way to accomplish that?

Hadar Aviram said...

I think that's a great comment. The Stop Torture campaign isn't advocating complete abolition of the SHU; its goal is far more modest - limiting the usage of SHU to ten years. Ten years is plenty of time to keep a human being in a cage 22.5 hours a day. Moreover, the goal is to have clearly articulated standards behind classifying people to the SHU, and ways to exit the SHU that do not incentivize inmates to provide false information about other inmates.