Helps No One
Sturm Interviews Staughton Lynd
By Daniel Sturm, Z Magazine
June 1, 2007
more than a decade of failed attempts to abolish the death penalty in
Ohio, a theater play brought the issue back to the front pages. Lucasville:
The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising opened April 11 in Portsmouth,
a few miles south of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility where one
of the nation’s deadliest prison riots took place in 1993 during
which nine prisoners and one correctional officer were killed.
questions the death penalty convictions of five inmates involved in
the siege and exposes the racist and unjust elements of the capital
punishment system in the United States. The person who brought the issue
into the headlines is Staughton Lynd, a civil rights attorney and historian
who continues to make regulating Ohio’s prisons and abolishing
the death penalty his full-time struggle. In the 1960s Lynd was the
director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools and taught history alongside
Howard Zinn at Spellman College. When the steel mills closed in the
late 1970s and early 1980s, Lynd represented the workers. He then turned
to the prison industrial complex that had risen in the steel industry’s
on Lynd’s book, Lucas- ville, a definitive history of the rebellion,
the story begins in April 1993 when prisoners take over a cellblock
in the correctional facility. About 2,000 law enforcement officers surrounded
the prison during the 11-day riot, in a stand-off that was covered by
national media, though not always with accuracy. The Columbia Journalism
Review wrote that, “Reporters vied for atrocity stories. They
ran scary tales—totally false, it was later found—that spread
panic and paranoia throughout the region.”
focuses on the trial of five prisoners accused of murdering Correctional
Officer Robert Vallandingham. George Skatzes, Siddique Abdullah Hasan,
Jason Robb, James Were, and Keith Lamar are all currently on Ohio’s
death row and pursuing appeals. Lucasville challenges the audience to
decide whether the right men were convicted.
Can you describe what triggered the rebellion?
The Muslim prisoners who first seized officers in L block and made them
hostages had in mind a brief, bloodless disturbance. They hoped to make
authorities in Columbus overrule Warden Tate’s insistence on testing
for TB by injecting a substance under the skin containing phenol, a
form of alcohol. But within moments, events spun out of control. What
all witnesses describe as “chaos” ensued. Officers were
severely beaten. The prisoners in rebellion thought several of the injured
officers might die and went to some risk to take them to the yard where
they could be recovered and receive medical attention.
Tate encouraged informants, even creating a special post office box
to receive their communications. Six supposed “snitches”
were murdered by fellow prisoners during the first hours of the uprising.
The prison administrators created their share of unintended consequences,
too. As Sergeant How- ard Hudson testified, their hostage negotiating
manual directed that prison negotiators should deliberately stall, in
order to wear down the resistance of the hostage takers. This approach
caused the authorities on the first full day of the occupation to turn
off the water and electricity. Three days later, the authorities’
refusal to restore these utilities became the immediate cause of hostage
officer Robert Vallandingham’s murder.
documents how the Lucasville Five were singled out as organizers of
the uprising and spokespeople for the prisoners. You show how they were
convicted for Vallandingham’s murder, despite compelling evidence
of the defendants’ innocence. What corrective action do you propose?
come to believe that there were individuals on both sides during the
rebellion who sought to avoid bloodshed. In negotiating a settlement
and peaceful surrender, the Lucasville protagonists brought their confrontation
to an end with significantly fewer deaths than in earlier prison rebellions
at Attica (1971) and Santa Fe (1980). The behavior of the prisoners
might be compared to the actions of soldiers pinned down by enemy fire
on an unexpected battlefield. Most of the 407 men in L block. Their
motivation in staying in L block was to protect their property and to
help fellow prisoners survive.
some from others, was whether they thought mainly about themselves or
guided their actions by the perceived welfare of the entire convict
body. This understanding of the Lucas- ville events is what leads me
to propose a general amnesty, as at Attica. Case by case adjudication
of individual guilt or innocence misses the essential character of the
tragedy. Those convicted of murder, assault, or kidnapping have already
served almost 15 years in solitary confinement. It is enough.
of Sister Helen Prejean, and others, propose life without parole as
an alternative to execution. What’s your comment?
to us, as Quakers, that there is in every human being the possibility
of change, of redemption. But no one has a crystal ball or measuring
instrument that makes it possible to know for sure when such change
has truly occurred. In our society, persons who may be poorly educated
have a hard time finding work and then may commit a crime. When they
“max out,” or are paroled, they are even less prepared to
obtain a livelihood and live a normal life. In Boston last fall, someone
asked me about those who were psychologically unprepared for freedom
and the likelihood that they might repeat the crimes that land them
behind bars. As I pondered a response, another member of the audience
volunteered an answer. He said he had spent most of his life in maximum
security prisons. In his opinion, some prisoners need mental health
assistance before they can safely be released. But prison, this person
emphasized, helps no one.
New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, and North Carolina are
likely to ban executions and California has ordered an investigation
of the death penalty system. Yet, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat,
has called the capital justice system “fair and impartial.”
Can your play can help abolish the death penalty?
that would be excessive pride. That question connects in a funny way
with my research as an historian. I have had occasion to try to understand
where slavery, racism, and the thirst to kill come from in this country.
The best historical essay I ever wrote was “The Compromise of
1787.” It had to do with the fact that in the summer of 1787 the
Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and drew up a new Constitution
and 90 miles away in New York City the Continental Congress, the then
existing national governance, passed the so-called Northwest Ordinance,
which banned slavery north of the Ohio River.
what history textbooks say is, “Well, the folks living in New
York City struck a great blow for freedom, but alas, the people meeting
in Philadelphia compromised with the peculiar institution.” I
showed that that was nonsense. The Continental Congress had a Southern
majority at the time. The real meaning of the Northwest Ordinance was
not that it would be banned north of the Ohio River, but that slavery
would be recognized and tolerated south of the Ohio River.
As a matter
of fact, it’s clear from the speeches and writings of various
political figures of the day that Southerners had a good deal of hope
that the tremendous population explosion into what later became Alabama,
Mississippi, and Louisiana would slope north over the Ohio River so
that these states, too, would be settled primarily by Southerners and,
when push came to shove, would vote with the South. As it turned out,
that hope was not realized. But there’s a substantial southern
influence along the northern bank of the Ohio River in southern Ohio.
Cincinnati became the racist city it has been for almost 200 years—presently
providing one-fourth of the men on Ohio’s Death Row. The Indiana
towns across the river from Louisville, where my father grew up, and
Alton, Illinois, where anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy was murdered,
became similar hotbeds of violence. So I know firsthand the kind of
racist jokes and songs and what have you that came out of that milieu.
So we’re really dealing with a state that is divided between blue
and red. Everything south of Columbus is more southern than northern.
That’s the best explanation for Ohio Governor Ted Strickland’s
still representative of Ohio’s current population? Or is racism
a vestige of an older generation?
is vestigial, it is still very strong. I don’t know if you’ve
read Ann Hagedorn’s book about the anti-slavery movement in Ripley,
Ohio, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground
Railroad. Ripley is halfway between Cincinnati and Scioto County, near
where Lucasville and the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility are located.
Ripley was the scene of an anti-slavery movement that began ten years
before William Lloyd Garrison first published the Liberator. As Hagedorn
describes, it was at Ripley that a famous incident (Eliza crossing the
ice), later recounted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, occurred. Abolitionist
John Rankin had a house on a hilltop above Ripley where he left a lantern
on all night. It is said that when a woman named Eliza and her infant
child reached the northern shore of the Ohio, soaked and freezing, they
were met by a professional slave catcher named Shaw, who seized escaping
slaves and returned them to the South for money. Shaw is said to have
been so moved by Eliza’s bravery that he pointed to the light
from the lantern and told her to go there for help. So, there have always
been people in Portsmouth who are as liberal as anywhere else in Ohio,
but they have been a distinct minority.
your fight to end the death penalty connect with the upcoming play?
very much connected in my mind in that, if we could line up the adult
population of Ohio and ask, “Are you for or against capital punishment,”
there’s every reason to believe that more people would be for
it than against it. At the same time that we press the governor, a Methodist
minister and a former psychological counselor at Lucasville, to take
action, we need to win converts particularly in the southern part of
the state. As my wife Alice found out, 25,000 signatures were collected
in a couple of months after the April 1993 surrender in support of the
death penalty and an abbreviated appeals process for persons sentenced
to death. It’d be nice if we could collect 25,000 signatures on
a petition against the death penalty in the area south of Columbus.
the most dramatic moments in the play.
is a moment in the play, as in the book, when the authorities choreograph
a situation. George Skatzes is taken from his cell and not permitted
to return. Anthony Lavelle, who then becomes the government informant,
concludes that Skatzes has become an informant. But when he is finally
permitted to return several days later, Skatzes (an Aryan brother) goes
up to Hasan (a black Sunni Muslim Imam) in an adjoining cell and grabs
hold of the bars and says, “You don’t know me and I don’t
you. I didn’t tell them anything.” After a moment, Hasan
says, “I believe you.” It was a dramatic moment in life
and hopefully it will be a dramatic moment in the play.
accepted a minor role in the play as a judge. What triggered your interest
in that part?
a limitless belief in the “integrity and impartiality” of
judges so I thought I could demonstrate my “gratitude” by
playing one of these bastards. I have in mind particularly Judge Fred
Cartolano who presided over the trials of both James Were and Siddique
Abdullah Hasan. There is this wonderful line in the play where Hasan
tries to present evidence of the causes of the riot so the jury will
understand a little better what made people act as they did. The judge
rolls his eyes and says, “Riots are not created by the prison.
Riots are created by the inmates.”
Sturm is an independent journalist and media scholar who covers under-
reported social and political topics in the U.S. and Europe. He has
written on racism, human rights, the environment, and local politics.