Federal Judge: CA Prison Officials Retaliated Against Man Whose Lawsuit Led to End of Long-Term Solitary Confinement

Todd Ashker, who also co-led hunger strikes, has been wrongly kept in segregated housing unit for more than 5 years

March 3, 2022, Oakland, CA –
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken has found that for more than five years, high-level California Department of Corrections (CDCR) officials retaliated against Todd Ashker for his role in the lawsuit that led to the end of long-term solitary confinement in the state. In a 65-page order made public last night, Judge Wilken finds that officials in Sacramento headquarters directed an effort to manipulate the housing review process to ensure that Ashker remained in a restrictive segregated unit. 

In 2012, Ashker and his cellmate Danny Troxell filed the landmark class-action lawsuit that challenged CDCR’s practice of warehousing thousands of people for decades in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. Ashker was also one of the leaders of the statewide hunger strikes that helped secure the 2015 settlement that effectively ended long-term solitary. Last year, the court found continued systemic constitutional violations in California’s prisons and required the settlement be extended for the second time.

Judge Wilken’s order comes in response to a motion to enforce the anti-retaliation provision of the settlement. 

“I want to emphasize how appreciative I am of the incredible support I received from the legal team and from my peers in reaching this hard-fought result,” Ashker said from administrative segregation, where he remains housed while the parties work out the details of a remedy for CDCR’s retaliation against him. “Of course it is gratifying to be vindicated in this way, especially after the unbelievable amount of effort by so many people that went into obtaining this result. I am lucky, as is the entire prisoner class, to have the support of the legal team backing us up, and I know they will continue to back us up going forward.” 

Under the settlement, Ashker was released from the Security Housing Unit to a general population facility at Kern Valley State Prison. While there, in May 2017, an investigation was undertaken into possible safety concerns that could prevent Ashker from continuing to be safely housed in general population. 

Investigators determined that Ashker had no safety concerns, and the Institutional Classification Committee, chaired by Kern Valley’s warden, approved that determination. Yet, in an unprecedented move, a high-level official in CDCR’s headquarters intervened and ordered Ashker to be housed in administrative segregation, where he remains.  

Based on an analysis of a voluminous record that included depositions of CDCR officials and their contemporaneous communications, Judge Wilken determined that they repeatedly departed from standard practices to keep Ashker in segregated housing, hiding information from Ashker, his attorneys, and the court. The motive, the judge found, was to retaliate against Ashker for his advocacy and to try to diminish his stature among fellow incarcerated people. 

“We are incredibly pleased with this result,” said Carmen Bremer of Bremer Law Group, who helped bring the successful retaliation claim. “Judge Wilken’s order was the culmination of years of struggle and perseverance. It was never lost on the legal team that no matter what setbacks we encountered on the path to this victory – and there were plenty – Mr. Ashker and his supporters amongst the prisoner class remained steady and resolved. They know what it means to play the long game when it comes to vindicating their rights within a system that frequently tunes out their voices.”

Judge Wilken ordered the parties to try to agree on a proper housing placement for Ashker and to report back on those efforts within 45 days. 

Ashker is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Bremer Law Group, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone, Siegel, Yee & Brunner, Matthew Strugar, and Rebecca Rabkin.

In addition to Ashker and Troxell, the prisoner representatives in the case include

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Luis Esquivel, George Franco, Richard Johnson, Gabriel Reyes, George Ruiz, and Paul Redd, who passed away in June.

For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.


Last modified 

March 3, 2023