Debra J. Saunders

Before you join Jay Leno and Susan Sarandon and sign an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown to protest "solitary confinement" in California prisons' security housing units, there are a few things you should know. Start with the criminal records of the leaders of the Short Corridor Collective -- the four inmates who, despite their "extreme isolation," orchestrated a hunger strike with more than 30,000 inmate participants July 8.

While serving time for burglary in Folsom State Prison, hunger strike leader Todd Ashker stabbed a fellow inmate to death in 1987.

During his murder trial, a fellow inmate and fellow member of the Aryan Brotherhood stabbed Ashker's lawyer four times with a shank. Attorney Philip Cozens told the Los Angeles Times he believes that the inmate stabbed him in order to provoke a mistrial.

Yes, Ashker is the man the hunger strikers want to return to the general prison population. "What happens to him if he kills someone else," Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford asked, "he gets another life term?"

Does it matter to you that Ashker killed someone in prison? I asked Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance, which has supported the hunger strike. "Nobody can be tortured" for committing a crime, he answered.

I agree, but the Pelican Bay SHU isn't torture. I went there in 1993. I wouldn't want to spend an hour alone in one of those 8-by-10-foot cells, but I'd hate to spend any time in any prison. That's the idea.

There's no natural light and there's only recycled air in the SHU, but the worst part about the cells is that they have no real furniture -- just ugly concrete forms that serve as beds or chairs.

"We don't call it solitary confinement," California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton noted. Inmates have cable TVs, access to books and limited time in the law library. They can talk to, if not see, other inmates in their eight-cell pods.

Many of the cells house two inmates. Doesn't matter to the "torture" mongers. A 2012 inmate lawsuit argues that "being locked up with a cellmate all day in an 80-square-foot cell does not compensate for the severe isolation of the Pelican Bay SHU."

It's important to understand why prison officials want to isolate about 3 percent of the prison population -- to keep the other 97 percent safe from gang leaders who want to intimidate or eliminate inmates who step out of line. Ashker himself wrote that he would not "debrief" -- inform on others. "Many debriefers and their family members outside prison have been seriously assaulted and killed."

Debra J. Saunders

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