January 19, 2021

In 2016, a CA inmate’s suit ended indefinite solitary confinement policy. Now he says prison is using dirty tricks to keep him in ‘torturous’ conditions


DELANO — A California prisoner who was the lead plaintiff in a suit that ended the state’s former practice of indefinitely keeping inmates in solitary confinement for alleged gang membership has filed a new federal suit claiming he is being retaliated against for his legal work and “peaceful activism.”

Todd Ashker, 57, was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit settled in 2016 and a leader in the related statewide prison hunger strike that challenged California’s use of solitary confinement for people alleged to be part of prison gangs. Under the old system, the state could stick people in a segregated housing unit, or SHU, at Pelican Bay State Prison for nearly 24 hours a day on the basis that they were validated prison gang members, often on the word of confidential informants. Thanks to the suit, the prison system now goes by a “behavior-based” system for solitary confinement.

The so-called “Ashker Settlement” led to him and hundreds of others being released from solitary cells at the Pelican Bay SHU to other prisons. But according to a 132-page amended complaint filed by Ashker last September, he wrote his current conditions at Kern Valley State Prison are even more “torturous” than at Pelican Bay. His suit accuses prison officials of using dirty tactics to keep him in segregated housing conditions at Kern.

Among Ashker’s allegations: that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation falsely accused him of plotting to kill Pelican Bay staff and a California attorney when he was at Pelican Bay, that they fabricated allegations the Aryan Brotherhood — a white prison gang Ashker is alleged to be part of — wants to kill him, and that officials tricked him into signing a debrief agreement under duress, which he said was instantly nullified.

Ashker’s hand-written suit alleges that the Kern prison has subjected him to “unrelenting and spirit-crushing mental anguish, pain, and suffering as a result of the decades he has spent without any normal human interactive contact … without any hope of release or relief.” He later added that, CDCR officials are using “non-existent ‘enemy concerns’ as a pretext to justify the punitive placement on an extremely oppressive [modified SHU-type] facility.”

The “torturous” conditions include sleep deprivation, less time outside his cell than he was receiving at Pelican Bay, and other forms of retaliation by guards at the prison, he wrote.

“This all came crashing down on him the night of Sept. 21, 2018, he felt claustrophobic, as if walls closing in to crush him — and believed the only way to prevent this was nonstop exercise,” Ashker wrote, referring to himself in the third-person. “For two hours, he did not-stop push ups and squats holding a pencil in right hand to work off sets, he blacked out, falling flat and nearly entire pencil was impaled in his right eyeball, causing extreme pain.”

CDCR and the California Attorney General’s office have filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which alleges that the “safety concerns” for Ashker are valid and that he was placed in a general population yard for 15 months at Kern Valley prison before the prison had to keep him in segregation for his own safety.

“After approximately 15 months in general population, Ashker was later placed in Administrative Segregation for safety concerns that existed at KVSP,” the state’s motion says. “These decisions were made by different individuals, based on different information, and for different reasons.”

The state’s attorneys also wrote that Ashker’s allegations involving his treatment at Pelican Bay should be dismissed because they weren’t filed in the right jurisdiction. Ashker responded to the motion to dismiss in a legal response filed this week saying he planned to show “ongoing consistent pattern of prison officials concerted-malicious efforts to cause Plaintiff permanent-serious harm, and death-for decades.”

Ashker’s suit alleges that the safety concerns are “100 percent fake” and that the prison is “manufacturing false information that plaintiff is a priority target for murder by the AB and cannot be safely housed in CDCR general population prisons.”

Later in the suit, Ashker also alleged that in 2017, a gang investigator tricked him into signing an agreement to debrief — or cooperate with prison authorities — which Ashker said he nullified from the start. He was under extreme duress because he’d been led to believe his loved ones were “in jeopardy” at the time, and was led to believe he needed to sign the document to receive help, he wrote.

“By this time, plaintiff is out-of-his mind with concern about his loved ones and desperate to get them help. He signs the paper without bothering to read it. It never entered his mind to debrief so it didn’t matter what the paper said,” Ashker wrote. “Plaintiff had the presence of mind to add next to his signature ‘subject to certain conditions.’ This was intentional because he knew — based on decades of experience in the CDCR system — this added clause would automatically nullify the document, on the spot.”

In a legal motion filed in November, the state Attorney General’s office raised another issue: it alleged that Ashker’s court filings had labeled certain people as confidential informants and gang dropouts, and asked a federal judge to seal the filings and re-file them with hundreds of names redacted.

“Regardless of whether these individuals are in fact confidential inmate sources, the mere implication that these individuals might be confidential sources jeopardize the individual and inmate safety and security, put the lives and safety of these individuals’ families at risk, and further implicate safety and security risks for inmates and staff in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) institutions,” the state’s attorneys wrote.

So far, a federal judge has yet to rule on the motion to seal, and both Ashker’s first complaint, filed in 2018, and his amended complaint from three months ago remain public records.

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Author: Nate Gartrell