California’s historic Hunger Strikers’ Jan. 14 letter to Gov. Newsom’s legal advisor Kelli Evans

Counter-clockwise from top left: Sitawa Jamaa, Arturo Castellanos, George Franco, Antonio Guillen (both Antonio and George have represented the so-called Northern Hispanics at various times) and Todd Ashker. These men, tortured for decades in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay SHU, were leaders of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Movement in 2011-2013, mass hunger strikes that drew 30,000 participants at their peak. – Source: Prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com

by Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Jamma, Todd Ashker and George Franco

Dear Kelli Evans,

We are the four representatives of the plaintiff class in Ashker v. Newsom but are writing to you as citizens to request a phone conference with you and representatives of CCPOA and CDCR to follow up on the discussion we had with you on April 20, 2020. 

First, we recognize that the state is in crisis, and you and your office are working hard to gain control of the pandemic. As people in prison, we are deeply impacted by the pandemic as well. At a time when we are deeply concerned for the health of our loved ones outside and our loved ones are concerned for us, our communication with the outside world has been strictly limited. 

Now more than ever CDCR must move forward immediately with providing a tablet to each prisoner in the state. A tablet pilot program has been successful for over two years. Tablets are being used in other states and the Pelican Bay warden and some others have already approved the tablets for use in their institution, but Secretary Allison has not signed off on the request. 

The tablets cost the state nothing, as JPay provides them for free. Indeed, it is our understanding that the tablets actually make the state money. In this time of crisis, providing tablets so people in California’s prisons have a safe means to stay connected to their loved ones is essential to meet CDCR and the state’s mandate to serve the interests of rehabilitation. 

Next, we would like to continue our previous discussion about the damaging, isolating and non-rehabilitative environment in many Level 4 prisons throughout the state. Judge Wilken had found that the transfer of class members into such conditions violates our Settlement Agreement. 

We were promised a follow up meeting, but CDCR is now refusing to meet for a second semi-annual meeting, despite the fact that it is required under our Settlement Agreement.

However, Judge Wilken’s decision was reversed subsequent to our last meeting by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the transfer of plaintiffs into conditions providing less out of cell time than they had in the SHU was not covered by the Settlement Agreement.

During our discussion with you and others we were promised a follow up meeting, but CDCR is now refusing to meet for a second semi-annual meeting, despite the fact that it is required under our Settlement Agreement. They also say that they will not discuss the Level 4 issues that we raised in court, now that the Ninth Circuit has held that those are outside of the Settlement Agreement. 

That is why we are now writing to you as citizens concerned that CDCR’s Level 4 policies and particularly their refusal to provide tablets are counterproductive to rehabilitating prisoners, are continuing the harm that CDCR has admitted was caused by years in solitary and are wasting taxpayer dollars which could be saved by more humane and penologically appropriate policies.

The use of phones in the absence of tablets presents a threat to our safety and increased anxiety among prisoners worried about contracting a potentially deadly disease. 

We therefore ask that the governor’s office set up a phone conference between us four representatives, your office, and CCPOA and CDCR representatives to discuss how to fix the problems that exist in the Level 4 prisons. We also request that either our legal team lawyers or lawyers from the outside mediation team also be involved in the phone conference. We believe that we have valuable insights to offer, since we have to exist in these conditions and have thought about how to ameliorate them while also saving the state money. 

We are the four representatives of the prisoner class. The COVID crisis has put great strain on CDCR’s system, causing frustration, anxiety and increasing anger and tension amongst the incarcerated population. For example, the use of phones in the absence of tablets presents a threat to our safety and increased anxiety among prisoners worried about contracting a potentially deadly disease. 

We have demonstrated our ability and willingness to work with CDCR to provide and implement much needed reforms to their system. The problems we are raising, particularly CDCR’s continuing refusal to provide tablets, require urgent attention. We request a phone conference as soon as possible, hopefully before Feb. 1, 2021. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Arturo Castellanos

Ron Dewberry (Sitawa Jamma)

Todd Ashker

George Franco