Locked in solitary confinement, no chance of parole
The Business Journal, Aug. 1, 2005
by Daniel Sturm
Before becoming an Ohio State Penitentiary
physician, Dr. Ayham Haddad experienced a different side of incarceration
as a political prisoner in Syria. After being arrested, tortured, and
released, Haddad immigrated to the United States to begin a new life.
Now a general practitioner at Ohio's
only supermax, located off state Route 616 in Youngstown, Haddad has
a comparative perspective few could imagine. The doctor is amazed to
find that certain human rights issues aren't being taken more seriously
in the U.S. "In Syria, I was in solitary confinement for four months,"
Haddad reflected. "But here, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement
On June 13, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Anthony M. Kennedy expressed a similar concern, finding that "conditions
at [the Ohio State Penitentiary] are more restrictive than any other
form of incarceration in Ohio, including conditions on its death row."
Kennedy also noted a holding policy that retained prisoners "for
an indefinite period of time, limited only by an inmate's sentence."
Kennedy was referring here to the fact
that Ohio supermax prisoners are disqualified from eligibility for parole.
After surveying 26 out of 30 states operating supermax prisons, the
American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights
found that only Ohio and Maine were making this exception.
In 2002, when the two civil rights groups
took the state of Ohio to court, the Ohio State Penitentiary had been
operating for 3½ years, and 200 of its prisoners had been in
solitary confinement for more than three years. In most states, at least
some of these prisoners would have qualified for parole.
The story of Kunta Kenyatta is a case
in point. While serving a sentence at the Southern Ohio Correctional
Facility in Lucasville, the Cleveland native became eligible for parole
in 2002. But after being transferred to the newly opened Ohio State
Penitentiary, in 1998, his parole was indefinitely suspended. "If
I hadn't sued to get out of there, I would have been there until 2016,"
said Kenyatta, who served 16 years for a crime committed in his youth.
It is the idea of indefinite detention
that troubled Haddad most. "I love America," he told me over
a glass of Arak. "But you can punish people and put them in the
hole for a month or two. You can't put them in solitary confinement
for five years!" The doctor shook his head in disbelief.
Kenyatta was paroled in November 2002
following a successful class action suit that challenged the legitimacy
of his transfer. The soft-spoken man whose African name meant "the
musician" said the prison administration had sent him to the penitentiary
for having been a political disturbance. Kenyatta had dreadlocks, political
books such as the works of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, and he was
helping other prisoners to legally change their names. "They accused
me of trying to form an unauthorized group, which to them made me one
of the worst of the worst."
Breeding violent fantasies
At the Youngstown supermax, prisoners are locked in solitary confinement
for 23 hours a day, in bleak concrete cells measuring 7½-by-11
feet. Each cell has a sink and toilet, a small desk, a concrete stool,
a concrete slab with a thin mattress, and a slim rectangular window.
The idea of living in a concrete box
without knowing how long you'll remain there is known to create trauma
symptoms similar to those experienced by hostages: anxiety, headaches,
lethargy, insomnia, nervous breakdowns, perspiring hands, and heart
According to Craig Haney, a psychology
professor at the University of California, prisoners often begin experiencing
these effects after ten days in solitary confinement. Haney concluded
that supermax incarceration also greatly undermined a prisoner's prospects
for successful reentry into society.
Kenyatta said he'd have lost all psychological
balance if not for his pen-pals and books. "It's really stressful,
and often times you explode and get mad." He recalled how illiterate
inmates were hit the hardest. "They were basically cut off from
the world. So some of them started smearing feces in their faces, or
taking it out on their cell doors."
Even the most resilient individuals carry
the scars of solitary confinement long after being released. Now, two
years later, Kenyatta keeps his Canton home meticulously tidy, and has
said it would be difficult to imagine living with anyone else.
Ohio's Abu Ghraib?
The lawyer and historian Staughton Lynd said he wasn't surprised to
hear reports that prisoners of war in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were
victims of torture and other human rights violations. He could imagine
this treatment being an extension of patterns he'd observed at maximum-security
prisons in the U.S.
"What this country learns to do
to the 2 million people in its prisons, it has extended to other people
all over the world," Lynd said. "And of course, it does so
easily, because these people are very often of dark skin."
The retired attorney lives in a small
bungalow in Niles, from which he and his wife Alice are leading the
fight to humanize supermax prisons. Their work is inspired by their
advocacy of civil rights. In the 1960s, Staughton Lynd was the director
of the Mississippi Freedom Schools and also taught history to black
students at Spellman College.
The Lynds worked as labor lawyers when
the steel mills shut down in Youngstown. When they closed, the prisons
came, and the two lawyers realized that regulating them would be their
During a May 21 public tour of the 500-bed
facility, the Ohio State Penitentiary's spokesperson, Keith Fletcher,
said that one shouldn't forget that a supermax was "not a spa."
And although prisoners there were the "worst of the worst,"
they still received television, medical coverage, and the option of
a vegetarian menu. The supermax prison was also air-conditioned with
"tempered air." During the tour, Fletcher downplayed solitary
Noting that the United Nations mandates
that all prisoners have access to fresh air, I wondered whether the
supermax's "tempered air system" violated this mandate, and
attempted to ask the Ohio State Penitentiary warden, Marc Houk, about
the issue. However, the spokesperson informed me that Houk was "not
entertaining interview requests at this time relative to living conditions."
The design for supermax prisons originally
emerged in the 1970s in response to an increase in prison violence nationwide.
In the social climate of the Reagan years, legislators began favoring
the idea of isolating troublemakers in expensive new high-security facilities
as they also cut funding for rehabilitation programs. By 1997, 45 states
and the District of Columbia as well as the federal prison system were
operating super-maximum prisons.
But in the mid-1990s, the supermaxes
became the subject of an increasing number of lawsuits and human rights
protests. Prisoners and their attorneys reported a rise in the routine
use of stun belts, stun guns and restraint chairs. It was at this time
that the battle against Ohio's only supermax prison began.
Humanizing the hole
In January 2001, Charles Austin and 28 other prisoners filed a lawsuit
claiming that Ohio had violated their Eighth Amendment rights. The prisoners
argued that medical and psychiatric care and recreation were inadequate
at the supermax, and physical restraints were too harsh. Prisoners received
medical injections through their narrow food slots, for example, and
had both hands handcuffed to the wall during medical exams.
In February 2002, the plaintiffs won
a significant legal victory when a federal district court ruled that
the state must follow strict due-process guidelines before sending prisoners
to the supermax. The number of inmates dropped significantly after a
court-ordered review of individual cases determined that two-thirds
of the prisoners did not meet the criteria for such restrictive confinement.
"The supermax was built to hold approximately 450 prisoners,"
Lynd said. "There are now roughly 250. So, you can say we've very
nearly cut the population in half."
The state of Ohio is looking for a way
to fill those empty cells. In March, officials announced plans to move
Ohio's death row from Mansfield to Youngstown. The $157 daily cost per
inmate would drop if the facility were filled, state officials argued.
Specific details have not been disclosed.
The ACLU has filed legal action to block
the transfer of about 200 death row inmates. The hearing is set for
Aug. 18 before U.S. District Judge James Gwin. ACLU lawyers will argue
that the wholesale transfer of an entire category of prisoners violates
the concept of individualized hearings.
Lynd, who works as counsel for the ACLU
on the case, said he believes the relocation of death row prisoners
to Youngstown would lead to a deterioration of their mental health,
more suicides and an increase in requests to "volunteer" for
"We are fighting Ohio's plan to
move death row tooth and nail," Lynd said.
After once meeting with a supermax client
who'd been handcuffed with his arms behind his back for 2½ hours,
the attorney remembered sharing his gut response to the incident with
his wife: "Give me a teaspoon, so I can start tearing this place
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