As this is written on Christmas Eve, a small group of death-sentenced prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) have declared their intention to begin a "rolling hunger strike" on Monday, January 3.
Who are they? What are their objectives? What is this all about?
The four hunger strikers are Siddique Abdullah Hasan, formerly known as Carlos Sanders; Keith LaMar; Jason Robb; and Namir Abdul Mateen, also known as James Were. (A fifth member of the group, George Skatzes, was transferred out of OSP in 2000.)
All these men were sentenced to death in trials conducted in 1995-1996 for their alleged roles in the 11-day rebellion at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, Ohio in April 1993. See my book Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press: 2004), to be re-issued in 2011 by PM Press, Oakland, CA, with a Foreword by Mumia Abu Jamal.
Hasan and Robb were two of the three men who negotiated a peaceful surrender. Tragically there were ten deaths during the disturbance (nine prisoners and one hostage officer). But thanks to the way the "Lucasville riot" ended, there were far fewer fatalities than at Attica, New York in 1971, where more than forty persons died.
At the request of Ohio authorities, Attorney Niki Schwartz of Cleveland helped to negotiate the surrender. During a forum on the Lucasville events held at Cleveland State University in November 2010, Attorney Schwartz asked, in effect: If we seek the death penalty against men who helped to bring a bloody riot to a peaceful end, what will happen the next time?
Persistent Discrimination Against Death-Sentenced Lucasville Defendants
Judge James Gwin of federal district court noted with amazement during the trial of the prisoners’ class action, Austin v. Wilkinson, that death-sentenced prisoners at the highest security level in the Ohio State Penitentiary wanted to be returned to Death Row!
The fundamental reason offered by the Lucasville defendants for a hunger strike is that throughout their more than seventeen years of solitary confinement, they have been subjected to harsher conditions of confinement than the more than 150 other men sentenced to death in Ohio. The conditions under which the death-sentenced Lucasville prisoners are confined prevent them from ever being in the same space as another prisoner.
At the time of the 1993 uprising Ohio's Death Row, as well as its execution chamber, was located at Lucasville. In the mid-1990s, the execution chamber remained at SOCF but death-sentenced prisoners were transferred to the Mansfield Correctional Institution (ManCI) north of Columbus. One reason for the transfer, it seems, is that correctional officers at SOCF came to recognize death-sentenced prisoners as human beings and found it distressing to be part of execution teams.
The Lucasville capital defendants consider that from the beginning their conditions of confinement have been harsher than the circumstances of confinement for other death-sentenced prisoners. They have launched several previous hunger strikes. Skatzes wrote to the authorities about one such strike at ManCI: "All we want is . . . being placed on our proper 'security' level." LaMar drafted the group's demands during another hunger strike. One of their group needed immediate medical attention, LaMar wrote, and: "Surely he is entitled to the same attention that is accorded to everyone else."
The frustration expressed in the Mansfield hunger strikes came to a climax on September 5, 1997. Prisoners in DR-4, the living area at ManCI in which the Five along with a much larger number of other death-sentenced prisoners were being held, occupied the "pod" for approximately six hours. The correctional officers on duty were overpowered and then released unharmed. There was some prisoner-on-prisoner violence against Wilford Berry, who had given up his appeals and volunteered for execution. When a SWAT team of officers assembled from all over Ohio stormed DR-4 late in the evening, the prisoners had returned to their cells. An investigating committee consisting wholly of prison administrators found that the SWAT team had used excessive violence. Jason Robb, apparently singled out because of his alleged role in the riot four years earlier, was beaten especially badly, had his skull fractured, and almost lost an eye.
Unequal treatment continued when the death-sentenced Lucasville defendants were transferred to OSP in Youngstown. Judge Gwin found that OSP was constructed "in reaction to the April 1993 riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville." Consistently with this conclusion, the five alleged leaders of the 1993 occupation were transferred to OSP within two weeks of its opening in May 1998. At OSP they are housed, not in the less restrictive conditions experienced by other death-sentenced prisoners, but in the high maximum conditions specific to the highest level of security in Ohio, so-called Level 5.
Professor Denis O'Hearn, director of graduate studies in sociology at the State University of New York (Binghamton), regularly visits LaMar and Robb. As described by Professor O'Hearn:
— They are "in 23-hour lockup in a hermetically sealed environment where they have almost no contact with other living beings — human, animal, or plant." When released from their cells for short periods of "recreation" they continue to be isolated from other prisoners.
During occasional visits, "a wall of bullet-proof glass separates the prisoner from the visitor. A few booths away, a condemned man from death row sits in a cubicle where a small hole is cut from the security glass between him and his visitors. He can hold his mother's hand. With a little effort, despite the shackles he must wear on a visit, he can kiss a niece or a grandchild. He does not have to shout to hold a conversation."
Hasan, LaMar, Robb, and Were experience "security reviews" annually but the outcome of these reviews is predetermined. The Lucasville defendants have been told by the authorities, in writing:
"You were admitted to OSP in May of 1998. We are of the opinion that your placement offense is so severe that you should remain at the OSP permanently or for many years regardless of your behavior while confined at the OSP" (emphasis added).
The emphasized words violate the explicit instruction of the Supreme Court of the United States. In its opinion specifically concerning conditions of confinement at OSP, the high court held that due process required that a prisoner might be placed at OSP only on the basis of "a short statement of reasons," and that in subsequent classification review that statement "serves as a guide for future behavior."
But Hasan, LaMar, Robb, and Were have been told that they will remain in the conditions of confinement decreed by State administrators regardless of their "future behavior," that is, their behavior while at OSP.
Other prisoners sentenced to death for alleged crimes comparable to those for which Hasan, LaMar, Robb, and Were were found guilty have been moved off Level 5: to Death Row at OSP, to Level 4 at OSP, and out of OSP entirely to ManCI. One of the four Lucasville defendants asks, Must I have a mental breakdown in order to get off Level 5?
For Whom The Van Leaves
Another apparent reason that these men are desperately opting for the life-threatening practice of a hunger strike is the State of Ohio's present practice of seeking to execute one man every month.
The 17th century British poet John Donne commented on the practice of ringing church bells when a person died. No one should ask for whom the bell tolls, the poet observed, because "it tolls for thee."
In the Youngstown diocese, Catholic churches continue the practice of ringing their bells when an execution occurs. At OSP, prisoners know when the van is about to leave OSP to take a man to Lucasville to be killed. A person whom they have known as a friend, alive and well, is suddenly gone and dead. This works a psychological hardship on survivors. The remaining death-sentenced prisoners, some with a specific "date," know that sooner or later the van will come for themselves.
Incredibly, Ohio was the only one of the fifty states to execute more prisoners in 2010 than in 2009. In 2010 Ohio executed more prisoners than any other state except Texas. Of the 46 executions in the entire country, Texas executed seventeen and Ohio eight, or 17 percent of the total number of executions nationwide.
And Besides, We're Not Guilty
There is strong evidence that the Lucasville capital defendants have been singled out because of their supposed leadership roles in the 1993 rebellion, not because they killed anyone.
Two prisoners very badly injured by other prisoners during the riot were visited in the SOCF infirmary by officers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Johnny Fryman had almost been killed by other prisoners at the beginning of the rebellion. He states under oath that in May 1993 he was taken to the SOCF infirmary and interviewed by two members of the Ohio State Highway Patrol:
"They made it clear that they wanted the leaders. They wanted to prosecute Hasan, George Skatzes, Lavelle, Jason Robb, and another Muslim whose name I don't remember. They had not yet begun their investigation but they knew they wanted those leaders. I joked with them and said, 'You basically don't care what I say as long as it's against these guys.' They said, 'Yeah, that's it.'"
The State of Ohio still does not know who actually killed hostage officer Robert Vallandingham. In various court pleadings, the Special Prosecutor has offered different lists of the hands-on killers. None of the men sentenced to death appear on any of these lists.
Professor O'Hearn ends his comment by saying: "If deprivation of human contact is what led these men into lives where they committed horrific deeds, why do we punish them by continuing and even intensifying that deprivation? Why not give them the one thing that could have brought them from the brink in the first place: a little bit of loving, human contact? A clasp of a loving hand from time to time. The chance to show that they can be better men than they were. None of us can be hurt by this small mercy."