On July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 incarcerated men and women across California began refusing to eat. It was the start of the nation’s largest-ever prison hunger strike, and for some the fasting would last nearly two months. The mass protest made headlines across the country, and compelled the state to seek a federal court’s permission to force-feed participants. After state lawmakers agreed to hold hearings about conditions inside California’s prison system, the strike was finally suspended on September 5, 2013.
What was remarkable about the statewide action was not just its size and duration, but the fact that it had been planned and coordinated by a group of men held in solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours a day. The men were held in what was known as the Short Corridor of the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, one of the nation’s oldest and most notorious supermax prisons.
The so-called Short Corridor Collective was a racially diverse group of accused prison gang leaders, who were supposed to be mortal enemies. Some had been held in solitary confinement for as long as 23 years—isolated, like hundreds of others, because of their alleged gang activity. But together, from their windowless 11-by-seven-foot cells, via communications shouted down the corridor, they organized a hunger strike with five core demands. They wanted an end to the system of “group punishment.” They also demanded that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) modify its gang-status criteria, which justified placing individuals in indefinite solitary confinement if they were “validated” as gang members. These validations were often based on circumstantial evidence such as tattoos, reading materials, or associations with others. The only way out of the SHU was to “debrief,” or provide information incriminating others—a process that could be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefed and his family on the outside. It also invited false accusations by men desperate to be released from solitary. The other demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement as well as “adequate and nutritious food” and “constructive programming.”
In September 2012, the Short Corridor Collective issued an Agreement to End Hostilities among racial groups, which declared in part:
We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit! Because the reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners, and thereby, the public as a whole.
CDCR officials had repeatedly stated that, while the SHU is a form of restricted housing, it is not solitary confinement. They initially denounced the hunger strike as being organized by prison gangs. However, the growing attention from sympathetic state legislators as well as supporters across the country made it increasingly impossible to ignore the prisoners’ demands. In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of all prisoners held in the SHU charging that prolonged solitary confinement violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violated constitutional guarantees of due process.
The lawsuit, Ashker v. Governor of California, was settled on September 1, 2015. Soon, the number of individuals held in the SHU began to drop dramatically, as men who had been in solitary confinement for as long as three decades were released into general population or into transitional “step-down” programs.
Among them was Todd Ashker, now 54, the high-profile lead plaintiff in the suit and a driving member of the Short Corridor Collective, who had been in the SHU since 1988 for his alleged ties to the Aryan Brotherhood. “I am still amazed at how big the sky looks,” he wrote shortly after his transfer from Pelican Bay to Kern Valley State Prison. “The sun gets hot! I’ve already gotten burned a few times.”
The changes were widely celebrated, culminating in an October 2017 60 Minutes segment in which Oprah Winfrey sat in a now-empty cell at Pelican Bay. She extracted a mea culpa from CDCR director Scott Kernan for his department’s past excessive use of solitary confinement, and accepted without question his pronouncements about the brighter and more humane future that was coming to pass for incarcerated Californians.
Five years after they refused their first meal, there can be no doubt that the prison hunger strikers and their supporters won a decisive victory. But prisons are notoriously change-resistant institutions, and the truth about solitary confinement in California today is far more complicated than the state-generated PR or upbeat reporting suggests.
Just ask Todd Ashker. After only 13 months of being able to see the sky and talk face to face with other human beings, Ashker is back in isolation. And he’s not the only one.