Ohio’s Abu Ghraib


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 for years!”

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 3 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 7-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 palpitations.

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 next struggle.

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 confinement’s effects.

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 execution.

“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 2 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 down.”

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Daniel Sturm teaches journalism at Youngstown State University in Northeastern Ohio. He is a German journalist who covers underreported social and political topics in Europe and in the United States.

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