Ashker v. Governor of California

At a Glance

Current Status 

The case reached settlement on September 1, 2015, ending indeterminate solitary confinement in California, and dramatically reducing the number of people in isolation.

Date Filed: 

May 31, 2012

Co-Counsel 

California Prison Focus, Christensen O'Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, Law Firm of Charles Carbone, Gregory Hull, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP

Client 

Case Description 

Ashker v. Governor of California is a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement. The case charges that prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ rights to due process. The legal action is part of a larger movement to reform conditions in SHUs in Calfornia’s prisons that was sparked by hunger strikes by thousands of SHU prisoners in 2011 and 2013; the named plaintiffs in Ashker include several leaders and participants from the hunger strikes. The case is part of CCR’s broader efforts to challenge mass incarceration, discrimination, and abusive prison policies.

SHU prisoners spend 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, or educational programming. Hundreds of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years and dozens for more than 20 years, causing harmful and predictable psychological deterioration. In fact, solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage and can constitute torture under international law.

In addition, the suit charges that prisoners are denied any meaningful review of their SHU placement. California, alone among all 50 states and most other jurisdictions, imposes extremely prolonged solitary confinement based merely on a prisoner’s alleged association with a prison gang. Gang “affiliation” is assessed without considering whether a prisoner is – or ever was – actually involved in gang activity.

Ashker v. Governor of California amended an earlier pro se lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell. The case is before Judge Claudia Wilken in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Case Timeline

September 1, 2015

Landmark settlement ends indeterminate solitary confinement in prisons throughout California.

September 1, 2015

Landmark settlement ends indeterminate solitary confinement in prisons throughout California.

The plaintiffs and the State of California have agreed on a landmark settlement that will end indeterminate solitary confinement in prisons across California, stop the use of “gang affiliation” as a basis for placing people in isolation, dramatically reduce the number of people in solitary, and create a new step-down program designed to return those sent to the SHU to general population in two years or less.

March 13, 2015
CCR and co-counsel submit expert reports
March 13, 2015
CCR and co-counsel submit expert reports

CCR and cocounsel submit 10 reports authored by experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, medicine, prison classification, prison security, international law, and international corrections. The reports provide an unprecedented and holistic analysis of the impact of prolonged solitary confinement, and document severe physical and psychological harm among California SHU prisoners as a result of their isolation.

According to the experts, prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary experience a form of “social death” that is not cured upon release, but rather lingers as a “post-SHU syndrome” characterized by social withdrawal, isolation, and anxiety. The profound impact of solitary is not just psychological; plaintiffs' experts also uncovered evidence that SHU prisoners experience unusually heightened levels of hypertension, placing them at risk for serious health consequences. The international and domestic experts agree that such prolonged isolation is not only unnecessary for prison security, but actually counter-productive, as well as a violation of international law.

Finally, plaintiffs’ experts demonstrate that social interaction and physical touch are basic and fundamental human needs, the deprivation of which has serious and irreversible impacts. These reports provide valuable new evidence for prisoners and advocates fighting to end solitary confinement across the country.

March 9, 2015

Judge issues written order granting our motion for leave to file supplemental complaint

March 9, 2015

Judge issues written order granting our motion for leave to file supplemental complaint

February 12, 2015
Court hears oral argument on our motion for leave to file supplemental complaint
February 12, 2015
Court hears oral argument on our motion for leave to file supplemental complaint

Judge Wilken rules from the bench that the lawsuit may cover plaintiffs transferred out of Pelican Bay to other prisons during the course of the case.

June 2, 2014
Court certifies case as class action
June 2, 2014
Court certifies case as class action
The court certifies the case as a class action, identifying an Eighth Amendment class of prisoners subject to prolonged solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay SHU and a due process class of prisoners in the SHU under old gang validation policies.
February 11, 2014
Joint Public Safety Committee of the California Legislature holds Joint Informational Hearing on CDCR's Proposed New Policies on Inmate Segregation
February 11, 2014
Joint Public Safety Committee of the California Legislature holds Joint Informational Hearing on CDCR's Proposed New Policies on Inmate Segregation
October 9, 2013
Joint Public Safety Committee of California Legislature holds Joint Informational Hearing on Segregation Policies in California Prisons
October 9, 2013
Joint Public Safety Committee of California Legislature holds Joint Informational Hearing on Segregation Policies in California Prisons
September 26, 2013
Court holds hearing on motion for class certification
September 26, 2013
Court holds hearing on motion for class certification
August 8, 2013
We file a reply brief in support of our motion for class certification
August 8, 2013
We file a reply brief in support of our motion for class certification
July 18, 2013
State files opposition to motion for class certification
July 18, 2013
State files opposition to motion for class certification
July 8, 2013
Beginning of third Pelican Bay hunger strike
July 8, 2013
Beginning of third Pelican Bay hunger strike
On the first day of the strike, 30,000 people in prisons around California refuse meals. After 60 days, in response to promises by California lawmakers to hold legislative hearings on solitary confinement, the strike is suspended on September 5, 2013.
May 2, 2013
CCR and co-counsel file motion for class certification
May 2, 2013
CCR and co-counsel file motion for class certification
We move to certify the case as a class action, seeking to represent all prisoners subject to unconstitutional treatment at the Pelican Bay SHU.
April 9, 2013

Judge denies State's motion to dismiss.

April 9, 2013

Judge denies State's motion to dismiss.

Siding with the prisoners, the court refuses to dismiss their claims and allows the case to proceed.
January 17, 2013

CCR and co-counsel file opposition to motion to dismiss

January 17, 2013

CCR and co-counsel file opposition to motion to dismiss

December 17, 2012

State files motion to dismiss

December 17, 2012

State files motion to dismiss

October 16, 2012
Pelican Bay Short Corridor representatives send open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown
October 16, 2012
Pelican Bay Short Corridor representatives send open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown
August 12, 2012
Agreement to End Hostilities is signed and released by men imprisoned at Pelican Bay
August 12, 2012
Agreement to End Hostilities is signed and released by men imprisoned at Pelican Bay
May 31, 2012

CCR and co-counsel file amended complaint

May 31, 2012

CCR and co-counsel file amended complaint

CCR and co-counsel file an amended complaint, alleging that conditions and policies at the Pelican Bay SHU violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and deny prisoners due process.
September 26, 2011

Hunger strike resumes

September 26, 2011

Hunger strike resumes

Hunger striking resumes after CDCR fails to address strikers' demands. Up to 12,000 people take part in this hunger strike across California and in other states. It is called off on October 15, 2011.
July 1, 2011
Pelican Bay hunger strike begins
July 1, 2011
Pelican Bay hunger strike begins
The first hunger strike begins: over 1,000 people imprisoned at the Pelican Bay SHU participate. The strike quickly spreads to at least 6,600 imprisoned people in 13 facilities around California, lasting until July 20, when CDCR makes what representatives think is a good faith gesture to begin addressing issues raised by the strikers.
December 9, 2009

Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell initiate litgaton by filing pro se complaint in Northern District of California

December 9, 2009

Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell initiate litgaton by filing pro se complaint in Northern District of California

CDCR adopts new Security Threat Group regulations
CDCR adopts new Security Threat Group regulations