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We stand together so prisoners never have to go through the years of torture we did

March 1, 2018

by Todd Ashker

“Pelican Bay SHU Half Living, Half Dying” – Art: Michael D. Russell, C-90473, HDSP C2-122, P.O. Box 3030, Susanville CA 96127

This is a follow-up to our October 2017 Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement’s statement of prisoner representatives on the second anniversary of the Ashker v. Brown settlement.

In our collective October 2017 statement, we stressed: “(P)risoners and our families will have to re-energize the human rights movement, to fight against the continuing violations of our rights.” We reminded all involved, “We must stand together, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of prisoners, so that they don’t have to go through the years of torture that we had to.”

With this in mind, I am sharing a copy of my proposed “Open Letter to Gov. Brown, California legislators and CDCR Secretary Kernan on ongoing human rights violations and lack of reparative action for decades of torture” with the hope of helping to re-energize our movement, by gaining widespread support for the positions presented in the “open letter.”

As many are aware, our current collective movement began in the bowels of Pelican Bay State Prison – the SHU Short Corridor, wherein prisoners of different races and geographical areas became openly conscious of what we had in common, rather than what was different and divisive. We recognized we’d all been subjected to the same adversary’s boots on our necks, all members of a prisoner class subjected to decades of solitary confinement torture.

We became aware of the fact that those of us serving “term-to-life” sentences were all akin to the living dead, our existence being that of a mind numbing, spirit destroying, endless nightmare. I believe coming together in the Short Corridor, where we witnessed the toll of our slow decay, together with the prisoncrats progressively punitive, oppressive provocations, was one cause of our awakening, leading to us coming together as the PBSP SHU Short Corridor Collective.

Our struggle was focused on ending long-term solitary confinement and improvements to conditions. We stood up together and collectively we educated our loved ones and the general public about what had been in society’s shadow for far too long. We publicly “drew the line” and said, “No more!”

As a committed collective of fellow human beings, a large majority hailing from working class, poor communities, we lead our struggle from behind the walls, putting our lives in the balance – at that point, our lives being all we had. We demanded an end to our torture, based on our inherent right as human beings to humane treatment, inclusive of dignity and respect for our loved ones and the unfortunate generations to follow.

Notably, our collective membership had been the subject of the state’s decades long tough-on-crime war against the working-class poor. Politicized, we were vilified and branded as “the worst of the worst” in order to justify our subjection to endless torture – lasting for many of us more than 30 years.

In our collective October 2017 statement, we stressed: “(P)risoners and our families will have to re-energize the human rights movement, to fight against the continuing violations of our rights.” We reminded all involved, “We must stand together, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of prisoners, so that they don’t have to go through the years of torture that we had to.”

In this climate, we came together and utilized non-violent, peaceful protest actions, mass hunger strikes and work stoppages, which, together with the support of our awakened loved ones and countless other people of conscience outside the walls – while all along suffering with us – exposed our plight to the world community.

In 2012, we introduced our collective “Agreement to End Race-based Hostilities,” making clear our united intent to no longer be the source of our mutual adversary’s manipulation tactics, centered on keeping us divided and violent towards one another, which was thereby used to justify our adversary’s agenda – supermax, indefinite warehousing.

In that way, we demonstrated our humanity in the face of the provocations of our oppressive torturers. We pointed out the fact that, in the absence of race-based violence, our mutual adversary would be forced to end its policy of warehousing us in the small cells indefinitely, and open the prison up for meaningful programming and privileges, beneficial to the prisoner class.

I mention the above points as important reminders of the fact that the main basis for the success we’ve achieved to date has been our collective unity inside and outside the prison walls, making strategic use of combined litigation and peaceful activism, action tools, which, together with our related collective belief in and commitment to our cause, is a great example of “the power of the people.”

Our adversaries are constantly resisting any change beneficial to the prisoner class! History demonstrates the importance of our need to stand together collectively and refuse to allow those in power – at the will of the people – to halt our progressive movements’ demands for human rights and real justice, because, historically, every class action, civil-suit “victory” for the prisoner class in California has been manipulated by prisoncrats to the ultimate detriment of those that such “victory” was intended to benefit. It’s a non-stop battle!

What I greatly appreciate and respect about our Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement is what I hope is our part in society’s evolutionary leap in collective human consciousness. Standout examples of this for me go back to the Arab Spring and the massive Georgia prison system-wide work strike in December 2010 and then the January 2011 hunger strike at Ohio State Prison.

The main basis for the success we’ve achieved to date has been our collective unity inside and outside the prison walls, making strategic use of combined litigation and peaceful activism, action tools, which, together with our related collective belief in and commitment to our cause, is a great example of “the power of the people.”

Reflecting on the above, as well as our historic, collective group mass hunger strike protests across the California system of 2011-2013, brings to mind an often quoted phrase – a sort of benchmark of what’s wrong with society. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, reflecting on his own incarceration, famously said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Our collective composed of working class poor coming together in the context of having been demonized – tortured over three decades, facing extreme adversity from a powerful, well-funded adversary toppled and to an extent losing their supermax jewel, the PBSP SHU, by our peaceful protests and related global condemnation and litigation – epitomizes a great side of our society! I hope it’s an example of a growing social revolutionary process.

Related to the above, and to our common struggle in general, I want to share a few excerpts from “The Zinn Reader” – a bit of food for thought. On the subject of “Law and Justice,” Zinn wrote in “Obedience and Disobedience,” page 369:

“’Obey the law.’ That is a powerful teaching, often powerful enough to overcome deep feelings of right and wrong, even to override the fundamental instinct for personal survival. We learn very early (it’s not in our genes) that we must obey ‘the law of the land.’ …

“But the dominant ideology leaves no room for making intelligent and humane distinctions about the obligation to obey the law. It is stern and absolute. It is the unbending rule of every government, whether fascist, communist or liberal capitalist. Gertrude Schultz-Klink, chief of the Women’s Bureau under Hitler, explained to an interviewer after the war the Jewish policy of the Nazis: ‘We always obeyed the law. Isn’t that what you do in America? Even if you don’t agree with a law personally, you still obey it. Otherwise, life would be chaos.’

“’Life would be chaos.’ If we allow disobedience to law we will have anarchy. That idea is inculcated in the population of every country. The accepted phrase is ‘law and order.’ It is a phrase that sends police and military in to break up demonstrations everywhere, whether in Moscow or Chicago. It was behind the killing of our students at Kent State University in 1970 by National Guardsmen. It was the reason given by Chinese authorities in 1989 when they killed hundreds of demonstrating students in Beijing.

“It is a phrase that has appeal for most citizens, who, unless they themselves have a powerful grievance against authority, are afraid of disorder. … Surely, peace, stability and order are desirable. Chaos and violence are not. But stability and order are not the desirable conditions for social life. There is also justice, meaning the fair treatment of all human beings, the equal right of all people to freedom and prosperity. Absolute obedience to law may bring order temporarily, but it may not bring justice. And when it does not, those treated unjustly may protest, may rebel, may cause disorder, as the American revolutionaries did in the 18th century, as anti-slavery people did in the 19th century, as Chinese students did in the 20th century, and as working people going on strike have done in every country, across the centuries.”

I appreciate Zinn’s view that absolute obedience to the law may achieve order for a time, while lacking justice. My point in sharing it is: Just because it’s a law – or a rule or regulation – does not make it right or just. And when it’s not, especially when those in power recite it to justify violations of human rights, it’s the responsibility of all to protest, to rebel, to cause disorder as necessary to force change.

From Zinn’s “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” “(T)he struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold onto it. That apparent power has, again and again, proven vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience – whether by Blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary, the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just.”

In “We are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism,” Herbert Read writes: “What has been worthwhile in human history – the great achievements of physics and astronomy, of geographical discovery and of human healing, of philosophy and of art – has been the work of extremists, of those who believed in the absurd, dared the impossible.”

I greatly appreciate your time, attention, courage and dedicated, supportive commitment to our collective struggle. Our strength and power come from our unity! And I am certain we can and will continue to make positive impacts upon the system, forcing real changes beneficial to all.

I hope we all continue to move forward, confident our fight is a worthy and just cause, working together in imaginative, strategic ways. It would be great if people will share, promote and build on the subject. Examples are in my “Open Letter,” possibly adding a supporting petition, signed by as many as possible, even if the petition is presented after public presentation of the “Open Letter” to the named parties.

There are more innovative, imaginative ideas that I’m working on and will share for your consideration soon. In the meanwhile, stay strong.

In Solidarity and Respect,

Todd

Send our brother some love and light: Todd Ashker, C-58191, KVSP ASU2-194, P.O. Box 5106, Delano CA 93216.  

“Pelican Bay SHU 1 & 2” – Art: Chris Carrasco, D-96045, Solano SP 2-114, P.O. Box 4000, Vacaville CA 95696. In these drawings, a prisoner grows old during years and decades suffering the inherent torture of long-term solitary confinement.

                                                                                       

Open Letter to Gov. Brown, California legislators and CDCR Secretary Kernan on ongoing human rights violations and lack of reparative action for decades of torture

Re: Attention to ongoing human right violations and related lack of reparative action necessary to begin making amends for more than three decades of systematic, intentional, state-sanctioned torture

I respectfully present the above-named parties with this “open letter” requesting attention to ongoing human rights violations and related lack of reparative action necessary to begin making amends for more than three decades of systematic, intentional, state-sanctioned torture and related harm therefrom to the prisoner class, as well as the general public, marked by the stain such policies cause subsequent to global condemnation; e.g., 2011-2013 mass, peaceful prisoner hunger strike protests against decades of subjection to torturous solitary confinement.

I present this “open letter” as a proudly involved principle representative of the growing Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement, as a peaceful action-activist, prison conditions litigator (inclusive of being lead named plaintiff in Ashker v. Brown) and 30-year survivor of CDCR’s state-sanctioned torture policies and practices.

I bring to your attention five examples of CDCR policies and practices equating to egregious, on-going human rights violations, resulting in numerous deaths and terrible, permanent harm to tens of thousands of prisoners, to our outside loved ones of the prisoner class and the general public, with hope for meaningful, tangible action to ensure this never occurs again; as well as timely, reparative action necessary to begin making amends for harm caused.

I.  Examples of CDCR policies and practices equating to egregious, on-going human rights violations, harming tens of thousands

A) Status-based (CDCR classification as validated gang affiliate), indefinite placement in solitary confinement (SHU) “until you parole, die or debrief.” Many prisoner class members were subjected to this endless, torturous nightmare for more than three decades. Secretary Kernan called this a “failed experiment” during an October 2017 TV interview on “60 Minutes.”

B) Building more than 23 prisons, equating to thousands of cells, basically designed as massive human warehouses, with little thought about work, education, vocational and rehabilitative opportunities – thus causing severe shortages of support structures (classrooms, shops etc.), resulting in the majority of prisoners languishing in small cells for years on end. This is in spite of the fact that providing prisoners with such opportunities of substantive meaningfulness is proven to reduce recidivism.

C) Building several large prisons in the southern Central Valley desert areas of the state, known to be covered with deadly valley fever spores. The knowledge goes at least as far back as WWII, whereupon the same areas were sites for German POWs and Japanese internment camps, where hundreds died of valley fever.

Notable is the fact that, in an approximate four-to-six-year time period, 60 to 70 CDCR prisoners died of valley fever, with countless others, including staff, becoming deathly ill, many permanently damaged. Around 2014-2015, the federal court medical overseer, in connection with the class action Plata case, ordered the immediate transfer of approximately 300 at-risk prisoners to prisons outside the known valley fever zone. This order was initially resisted. The media quoted Gov. Brown stating, “It’s not been proven valley fever is the cause of deaths and illnesses. Thus, we will challenge the order, pending a study.” His statement held until a New Yorker magazine published an article with data regarding WWII deaths at the same sites.

D) Decades of constitutionally deficient medical and mental health care, resulting in countless preventable deaths, medical and suicidal, which the state fought tooth and nail to preserve, demonstrated a total lack of respect for the federal court orders in the mental health class action Coleman case between 1990 and 2006, when CDCR violated more than 70 court orders issued by Judge Karlton. This resulted in the creation of the federal three-judge panel, combining the Coleman and Plata cases, wherein it was determined that “overcrowding” in the CDCR system was the primary cause of decades of failure to provide the minimum of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution. The panel of judges ordered a reduction of prisoners, which the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost, based on the well-established on record, shocking abuse. To this day, thousands are denied adequate treatment to cure their Hepatitis C.

E) CDCR policy and practice that subjects countless women prisoners seeking contraception and other types of care to permanent sterilization! Without their knowledge or consent!

F) CDCR policy and practice, arguably resulting in at least 39 deaths and hundreds of severe, permanent injuries, amounting to criminal homicide and assault with great bodily injury in a nine-year period, from January 1987 to December 1995, when CDCR used the “The Warning Shot” and “Integrated SHU Concrete Yard” policies. Under these policies, staff are mandated to respond to any and all physical altercations with deadly force – high power assault rifles, using specialized ammunition designed to cause maximum damage, e.g., 9 mm “glazier” rounds and mini-14, 223s. At that time, CDCR “integrated” the small concrete yards at New Folsom and Corcoran, placing segregated SHU prisoners – segregated based on historic rivalries – on yards together.

“Pelican Bay SHU, Bay View newspaper” – Art: David Mendoza, V-03186, SVSP, P.O. Box 1050, Soledad CA 93960

In a federal court civil trial, Eastern District, Sacramento 1994, a top CDCR administrator, Diggs, testified that they “knew the above policies would initially result in chaos, but viewed such as ‘collateral’ because they believed, over time, prisoners in SHU who wanted their only out-of-cell yard time would learn to get along.” Another “failed experiment.”

To reiterate, the above are presented as examples of on-going human rights violations in the CDCR system. They are each notable to have gone on unchecked for long periods of time, known to be morally and ethically – in addition to legally – wrong beforehand.

Each of the above continued for long periods of time, until finally being publicly exposed and condemned, thereby forcing some changes, often after protracted legal battles as well.

Unfortunately, several areas referenced above continue to be unresolved, meaning decades of egregious, harmful violations continue to this day! I hope you will take them seriously and take reparative action. Some suggested actions follow:

II.  Suggested reparative actions necessary to begin making amends for more than three decades of systematic, intentional, state-sanctioned torture

The following are suggested examples of reparative-type actions to begin to amend the process for tens of thousands of warehoused prisoners in general, as well as towards the damage done to those members of the prisoner class subjected to the “failed experiment,” having been subject to more than 30 years of solitary confinement torture, the damage of which persists to this day. See, for example, the 2017 Stanford report, “Mental Health Consequences Following Release from Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California.”

The following suggestions are briefly summarized, and more detailed support will be presented soon.

A) Term-to-life sentences and parole suitability:

Many prisoners used as guinea pigs in CDCR’s decades-long solitary confinement, a “failed experiment,” per Secretary Kernan, are serving term-to-life sentences: seven years to life, 15 years to life or 25 years to life, incarcerated since the early 1970s or the ‘80s and ‘90s. They are above and beyond their base term and their minimum eligible parole dates, many having served double, triple and more beyond those dates. I know several men who are still serving seven-years-to-life sentences given between 1970 and 1978.

We spent 20 to 30-plus years in solitary confinement, based on “status,” rather than “behavior,” and were denied work, vocational training, education and rehabilitation opportunities for most if not all of this time. When we go to our parole hearings, we are issued multi-year deferrals until our next hearings, again based on “status” alone for the most part, rather than individual evidence of current, serious danger to the public if released. We hear rote recitations of gang validation, lack of programming, lengthy SHU, refusal to debrief, participation in hunger strikes and relatively minor prison rule violations, like “possessing cell phones,” which nets a more than five-year deferral by itself.

Much of the above is related to our being included in the “failed experiment.” We are now in our 50s, 60s, 70s, begging the question: How do you repair the decades of damage done to our ability, under current standards, to receive a parole date?

Arguably, these points are applicable to a majority of lifers, “warehoused” and denied opportunities to achieve parole, due to the extreme shortage of programming opportunities at most institutions. They too are at and above their “minimums.” Notably, California has approximately 30,000 lifers above their “minimums.” Most are elderly, thus costing more annually than today’s average California prisoner does, at more than $70,000 annually. It’s also a matter of proportionality, coupled with “current danger” factors. Statistics nationwide, over the course of decades, demonstrate that prisoners sentenced to life, who have served more than 10 years and are paroled above age 40 have a less than 2 percent recidivism rate.

I suggest the following changes regarding lifer parole:

i) Reintroduce and pass a streamlined version of Sen. Hancock’s Feb. 21, 2014, SB1363, seeking amendment to California Penal Code §3041, which in a nutshell proposed, “Absent substantial evidence with respect to entire record demonstrating a current, serious danger to public safety, the Board shall set a parole release date for those who have served beyond their base term” – reasonable, considering that current law states, “Parole shall normally be granted at the minimum eligibility date.”

ii) Enact legislation designed to prevent the ongoing human rights violations, exemplified by references herein: For example, expand on the rights accorded the prisoner class in California Penal Code §§2600, 2601, et. seq., to include, but not be solely limited to the right to be free of solitary confinement in SHU or ASU, defined as spending 22½ hours per day in a cell for periods longer than permissible under international treaty law; rights to contact visits three to four days a week; right to same protections against CDCR’s use and abuse of confidential source information, as accorded to defendants in criminal prosecution, e.g., California Penal Code §§1111 and 1111.5, et. seq.

Provide the funding, with immediate mandate for CDCR to construct the support facilities necessary at each facility to provide programming and rehabilitation for the majority, rather than current minority, of prisoners, so that access is provided to sufficient numbers of classrooms, vocational training and rehabilitation workshop areas.

iii) Open up the Level IV general population prisons, allowing much more out-of-cell time in yard, day room etc. Such Level IVs are presently operated like modified SHU units, with thousands warehoused in cells, spending more time in small cells than SHU or ASU units.

iv) Expand contact visits, adding one to two days of visiting to the current weekends-only allowance. This can be accomplished without additional costs, simply by closing down a few of the nearly empty ASU and stand-alone units and re-routing costs and staffing from such units to visiting day expansions.

v) Remove “close custody” classification applied per revised regulation, Feb. 20, 2017; CCR, Title 15, §3377.2 (b) (1) (A), to most members of the Ashker v. Brown class action released from decades of “failed experiment” solitary confinement torture to general populations, based on the October 2015 settlement. “Close custody” prohibits 72-hour “family visits,” as well as further restricting various programming and privilege opportunities.

If we had not been “experimented” on for 10, 20 or 30-plus years, we would have been free from “close custody” in the 1980s and 90s. All of our CSRA scores are low.

vi) End close custody privilege group classification program failure determination based on “a significant disciplinary history, which may be evidenced by two serious or two administrative and one serious rule violations in a 180-day period,” per CCR, Title 15, §3000, which has the “program failure” definition.

This places severe punishments on the prisoner, in addition to those imposed for each rule violation. It is imposed regardless of the prisoner’s positive programming in every other way: work, school, rehabilitation, yard, day room etc., and actually strips away one’s job.

“Program failure” close custody status was created in 1985-1986 to punish those prisoners “refusing a job or education assignment.” That’s all it should apply to.

As stated above, the suggestions are a few examples of changes to the system that would be viewed as a positive amends-making, a beginning. It would be very helpful for you to meet with us, the principle prisoner representatives and our outside mediation team, for additional dialogue – asap.

Thank you for your time, attention and consideration,

Respectfully yours,

Todd Ashker, Prisoner Class Representative

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One thought on “We stand together so prisoners never have to go through the years of torture we did

  1. redjeans

    Maybe I am missing something here, but this entire piece omitted to mention the reasons for which these prisoners ended up in prison. If one was to believe what the author claims, one would have to conclude that they are all innocent and never hurt a fly, which we all know was not the case, or else they would not have ended up in jail in the first place. When you break the law and hurt other people, you should expect consequences, and these consequences are not supposed to be pleasant. A little more sense of responsibility and a minimum of contrition, together with less whining entitlement would have made the case more eloquently. As it stands, this screed only deserves to be thrown in the trash.

    Reply

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