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Morain: the real story behind the prison hunger strike

  • An aerial view of Pelican Bay State Prison, above, shows the X-shaped Security Housing Unit. The unit houses the most dangerous inmates and is the center of an ongoing hunger strike at the high-security complex. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat, 2001)

Philip Cozens has spent three decades representing murderers, gang leaders and other outlaws.

But the criminal defense attorney never ran across anyone more dangerous than Todd Ashker, his former client, a killer and a leader of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.

“The word they use is sociopathic,” Cozens said in his downtown Sacramento office. “He has an agenda. He goes after that agenda, no matter what.”

From his cell in the most isolated tier of California's most faraway prison, Ashker's current agenda is to orchestrate a hunger strike to force the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to let him and other gangsters out of the security housing unit, called the SHU, and into the general population at Pelican Bay State Prison.

More than a month into the action, almost 200 inmates are refusing meals, and lately have gained succor from Jay Leno, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson and 60 other celebrities and civil libertarians and prisoner-rights attorneys who declared in a letter:

“We stand together against these shameful practices and consider them extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In defense of the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we, the undersigned, call on Governor Jerry Brown to end this torture at Pelican Bay and all California prisons immediately.”

What blinders they wear in their rarefied world. Ashker, 50, went to prison at age 19 for burglary, after many crimes committed as a juvenile. On the inside, he has killed one inmate, assaulted other prisoners and guards, has been caught with weapons and drugs and tried to escape four times. He and other gang leaders fomenting the hunger strike want out of security housing because their isolation limits their ability to conduct gang business, prison officials say.

“They have no idea how dangerous this guy is,” Cozens said of Ashker's outside supporters.

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