FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

My Friend Todd Ashker, Hunger Striker at Pelican Bay

by DENIS O'HEARN

Todd Ashker is on hunger strike in Pelican Bay. California authorities call him “gang leader” and “terrorist.” I want to say something few people want to hear.

Todd Ashker is my friend.

I know him as a thoughtful human being who has dedicated his life to peaceful change, to helping his fellow prisoners by learning the law and sharing his knowledge. He was not that way thirty years ago when he first went to prison. He admits that. But any brain scientist will tell you that no man in his forties is the same man he was in his teens or early twenties.

What puzzles and amazes me is how Todd remains such a remarkable man while living in conditions most of the world considers to be torture.

Sit in a closet for an hour. Put a metal screen over the doorway that you can barely see through. Now think about sitting there for twenty-five years, communicating only with strangers in nearby closets by shouting out the door.

Oh, by the way, your arm has been shattered by a bullet fired at close range by a guard and you are in constant pain. Federal courts have repeatedly ordered CDCR to provide additional medical treatment but CDCR has done nothing. You have been told that you could get the treatment if you offer or invent information on others you may not even know. But if you did, they, too, would be thrown into a closet.

This is Todd Ashker’s life.

I met Todd when he participated in my university course. Along with us, he and nine other prisoners in long-term isolation across the United States read books by prison “experts.” Then the students wrote to the prisoners and asked how their experiences compared with what the sociologists and criminologists nothingbuthad written.

A few prisoners stood out. Todd Ashker was top of the list. We have corresponded ever since. I visited him in Pelican Bay recently, his first personal visit since 2007.

What I found in Todd is an astute observer who places the welfare of his fellows over his own wellbeing. Or, I should say, he sees his own wellbeing completely tied to that of his fellows. I once asked him “how did you decide that solidarity with others was more important than improving your own conditions of life?”

He responded that he would not put other people in danger just so he could get out of SHU or gain parole. Doing so would be “a selfish and despicable act.”

Todd and seven other men of different races were warehoused in a single “pod” known as the “short corridor” since 2003. As they became very close friends, they began to discuss how they could help each other regain some of the dignity that was taken away by California’s inhumane policy of long-term isolation. Among other things, they read about Bobby Sands and Irish prisoners who endured British prison policies that in many ways resembled Pelican Bay today. After years of protest, these Irishmen finally used the only peaceful weapon they had left. Ten men died on hunger strike in 1981.

I’ve known Irish hunger strikers, as I have known hunger strikers in Turkish prisons and in the United States. For them, hunger striking is no selfish or individual act. It is an act of deepest solidarity and friendship. Knowing Todd Ashker, I am not surprised that he is at the forefront of such an act of selflessness. Nor am I surprised that he always insisted that their protest must be peaceful.

California is not alone. Until recently, a handful of prisoners in Ohio State Penitentiary were also kept in strict isolation for nearly twenty years. In January 2011 they went on hunger strike with simple demands: to embrace their family on visits, to recreate together (black and white together, it mattered not to them). As in California, the authorities said at first that they would never give in. Then wiser heads prevailed. After less than two weeks the demands were granted and the hunger strike ended.

Today, OSP is a calmer, more humane place.

On my way from my last visit with Todd, I met the wife of another prisoner on Pelican Bay’s “short corridor.”

“I visit my husband every weekend but I have not touched him for twenty-two years,” she told me.

For her sake. For Todd Ashker. So that prisoners and guards and all of us can regain some humanity, let wiser heads prevail in California, as in Ohio.

Denis O’Hearn is author of Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation (Nation Books, 2006). He is Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University – SUNY, Visiting Professor at Boğaziçi University Istanbul, and has been Keough Visiting Professor, Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, Notre Dame University.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

April 27, 2017
Darlene Dubuisson – Mark Schuller
“You Live Under Fear”: 50,000 Haitian People at Risk of Deportation
Karl Grossman
The Crash of Cassini and the Nuclearization of Space
Robert Hunziker
Venezuela Ablaze
John W. Whitehead
Trump’s America is a Constitution-Free Zone
Ron Jacobs
One Hundred Years That Shook the World
Judith Deutsch
Convenient Untruths About “Human Nature:” Can People Deal with Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons?
Don Fitz
Is Pope Francis the World’s Most Powerful Advocate for Climate Stability?
Thomas Mountain
Africa’s War Lord Queen: The Bloodstained Career of Liberia’s Eleanor Sirleaf Johnson
Binoy Kampmark
Short Choices: the French Presidential Elections
Paul C. Bermanzohn
Monetizing My Mouth
Michael Barker
Of Union Dreams and Nightmares: Cesar Chavez and Why Funding Matters
Elier Ramirez Cañedo
“Let Venezuela give me a way of serving her, she has in me a son.”
Paul Mobbs
Cellphones, WIFI and Cancer: Will Trump’s Budget Cuts Kill ‘Electrosmog’ Research?
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee
The Closing of Rikers: a Survival Strategy of the Carceral State
April 26, 2017
Richard Moser
Empire Abroad, Empire At Home
Stan Cox
For Climate Justice, It’s the 33 Percent Who’ll Have to Pick Up the Tab
Paul Craig Roberts
The Looting Machine Called Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
The Dilemma for Intelligence Agencies
Christy Rodgers
Remaining Animal
Joseph Natoli
Facts, Opinions, Tweets, Words
Mel Gurtov
No Exit? The NY Times and North Korea
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Women on the Move: Can Three Women and a Truck Quell the Tide of Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse?
Michael J. Sainato
Trump’s Wikileaks Flip-Flop
Manuel E. Yepe
North Korea’s Antidote to the US
Kim C. Domenico
‘Courting Failure:’ the Key to Resistance is Ending Animacide
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Legacy of Lynne Stewart, the People’s Lawyer
Andrew Stewart
The People vs. Bernie Sanders
Daniel Warner
“Vive La France, Vive La République” vs. “God Bless America”
April 25, 2017
Russell Mokhiber
It’s Impossible to Support Single-Payer and Defend Obamacare
Nozomi Hayase
Prosecution of Assange is Persecution of Free Speech
Robert Fisk
The Madder Trump Gets, the More Seriously the World Takes Him
Giles Longley-Cook
Trump the Gardener
Bill Quigley
Major Challenges of New Orleans Charter Schools Exposed at NAACP Hearing
Jack Random
Little Fingers and Big Egos
Stanley L. Cohen
Dissent on the Lower East Side: the Post-Political Condition
Stephen Cooper
Conscientious Justice-Loving Alabamians, Speak Up!
Michael J. Sainato
Did the NRA Play a Role in the Forcing the Resignation of Surgeon General?
David Swanson
The F-35 and the Incinerating Ski Slope
Binoy Kampmark
Mike Pence in Oz
Peter Paul Catterall
Green Nationalism? How the Far Right Could Learn to Love the Environment
George Wuerthner
Range Riders: Making Tom Sawyer Proud
Clancy Sigal
It’s the Pits: the Miner’s Blues
Robert K. Tan
Abe is Taking Japan Back to the Bad Old Fascism
April 24, 2017
Mike Whitney
Is Mad Dog Planning to Invade East Syria?    
John Steppling
Puritan Jackals
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail