Ohio's Supermax On Trial
By Daniel Sturm, The Business Journal (Youngstown)
Three years ago, the American Civil Liberties
Union won a significant legal victory when a federal district court
ruled that the state must follow strict due-process guidelines before
sending prisoners to Ohio's only supermaximum-security in Youngstown.
The number of inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary
dropped dramatically 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
504 prisoners," reported Staughton Lynd, the ACLU's counsel on
the case. "There are now roughly 250. So, you can say we've very
nearly cut the population in half."
In a related hearing that began Aug. 31 before
U.S. District Judge James Gwin in Cleveland, the ACLU attempted to block
a recent state proposal to move Ohio's death-row from Mansfield to Youngstown.
The future of Ohio's only supermaximum-security prison may hinge upon
this hearing's outcome.
With a high record of suicide attempts, and recent
allegations of prisoner abuse which are currently under investigation,
critics of the move say that the state's money would be more efficiently
spent by shutting the facility down. The federal court is expected to
make its decision by the end of September.
The ACLU argued that the wholesale transfer of
approximately 190 death-row prisoners violates the concept of individualized
hearings. A psychiatrist from The Berkeley Wright Institute, Terry Kupers,
testified that placing death row inmates in supermaximum facilities
would result in deteriorated mental health, an increase in suicides,
and an increase in requests to "volunteer" for execution.
Countering this, the state maintained conditions
at Youngstown's supermax did not differ significantly from those in
Mansfield, and planned amenities for the death-row inmates would improve
living conditions. The state also argued that daily costs of $157 per
inmate at Ohio State Penitentiary would drop if the facility were filled.
Supermax prisons have always been controversial.
Designed in the 1970s in response to increased prisoner violence nationwide,
they were built with the idea of isolating "the worst of the worst."
Since the mid-1990s, supermaxes have been subject to an increasing number
of lawsuits and human rights protests. Human-rights advocates argue
that prisoners kept in long-term solitary confinement suffer from mental
stress and sensory depravation. This is not new. The first experiment
with solitary confinement took place when "silent prisons"
were built more than a century ago. Locked in solitary confinement for
most of the day, prisoners often became mentally ill.
One guard I spoke with from Youngstown's Ohio
State Penitentiary said conditions at his workplace today were disturbingly
reminiscent of those.
Prisoners are locked in solitary confinement for
23 hours a day, in concrete cells measuring 7½-by-11 feet. Each
cell had a sink and toilet, small desk, concrete stool and concrete
slab with a thin mattress. "Over 50% of the staff had never seen
an institution like this before they came to Youngstown," he said.
"Here, they see people locked up all day. Half of them defecate
in their pants. It's a dead end." He said, "We have an old
dungeon type of prison here."
Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a Sunni Muslim imam sentenced
to death for his alleged involvement in the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion,
has been incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary since it opened
in 1998. In a written interview, Hasan emphasized that: "Rarely
is media coverage given to guards assaulting prisoners, as if guards
have a green light to assault prisoners. However, if prisoners assault
guards, they are usually indicted and the media reports it."
Similarly, inmate Tommy McClenton (whose nose
was broken during a July 17 shakedown, which he claims was no fault
of his own), wrote "guards who assault and withhold certain privileges
from inmates" were provoking prisoners who would otherwise be eligible
for transfer to a lower security facility. In Ohio, supermax prisoners
are not eligible for parole board reviews, and must first be transferred
to a lower security prison.
Events at Ohio's supermax support these two prisoners'
statements. In the weeks leading to the hearing, several guards and
prison staff reported an increase in "use of force" incidents
at the supermax. There have also been eight suicide attempts since July
On Aug. 11, an Ohio State Penitentiary correctional
officer allegedly pepper-sprayed the prisoner Edgar Lee Hamilton in
retaliation for throwing a glass of urine on the guard, according to
two staff witnesses who requested anonymity.
During a second incident two weeks later, Hamilton
was beaten so badly that an ambulance had to be called. He received
stitches for wounds to his head, after allegedly being banged several
times against the cell bars. The prisoner was transferred last week
of August. The Ohio State Penitentiary's spokesperson, Keith Fletcher,
and the State Highway Patrol Investigator's Office confirmed that an
"ongoing investigation" is underway, but have declined further
comment. The Ohio State Penitentiary warden, Mark Houk, testified during
the U.S. District Court hearing that the correctional officers involved
had not placed on administrative leave.
Two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that
Ohio death-row prisoner Martin Koliser told a fellow inmate he would
rather kill himself than be moved to the supermax facility in Youngstown.
He committed suicide on May 7.
Daniel Sturm teaches journalism at Youngstown State University. He is
a German journalist who covers underreported social and political topics
in Europe and in the United States.
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