On July 8, 2013, 30,000 prisoners refused their meals, launching the largest mass prison hunger strike in U.S. history. One year later, Todd Ashker is marking off his twenty-fourth year in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). “I’m still alive, kicking and strong in heart and spirit,” he wrote in a June 2014 letter. Ashker is one of the four main representatives for the hunger strikers and the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit Ashker v. Brown. Nonetheless, he remains confined in the SHU since his placement there in 1990. He is not alone; as of April 2014, 1,199 people were held in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Some have been there for over a decade.
Inside the SHU, people are locked into windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or an indeterminate term for gang membership. Accusations of gang affiliation often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for over a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. In 2011, SHU prisoners called for a hunger strike to protest SHU policies. In 2013, frustrated with the lack of changes, they called for another hunger strike.