Federal judge trounces Ohio prison system
Published Feb 22, 2007 10:15 PM
“Incarceration at OSP [Ohio State Penitentiary] is synonymous with
extreme isolation. ... OSP cells have solid metal doors with metal strips along
their sides and bottoms which prevent conversation or communication with other
inmates. ... It is fair to say OSP inmates are deprived of almost any
environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact.”
Is this the slant of a muckraking journalist? No, these are the words of U.S.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, delivering the opinion for a unanimous
court in June 2005 in a class action lawsuit, Austin et al. v. Wilkinson et
al., filed by courageous OSP prisoners. That decision focused on
protecting inmates’ rights of due process in decisions about transfers to
On Feb. 16 in Cleveland there was a U.S. District Court hearing on another
important aspect of this lawsuit. More than 50 prisoners at OSP are in a status
called “Level 5,” as so clearly described by Justice Kennedy. They
are in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, let out only to shower and have
“recreation” alone. Inmates cannot be considered for parole until
they are on Level 3.
Most of the prisoners with convictions related to the April 1993 rebellion in
the prison at Lucasville, Ohio, have been on Level 5 for almost 14 years. This
includes four of the five men known as the Lucasville Five, who were given
death sentences in sham trials following the uprising. Handcuffed and shackled
but unbowed, Bomani Shakur (Keith Lamar) of the Lucasville Five was in court as
one of the prisoner plaintiffs.
Representing the prisoners, attorneys Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd called a
witness, Lloyd Slider, who had injured a guard 15 years ago in an incident
unrelated to the Lucasville uprising. Because the guard’s subsequent
death was ruled to be medical malpractice, the inmate was charged with
felonious assault but not murder, and he received a 12 to 15 year sentence.
In great detail, evidence was presented of reviews of the prisoner’s
conduct, which had been “excellent” and even “model
inmate” with all programs completed. Repeatedly, there were
recommendations to reduce his level, only to have those overruled. The
reasoning given was, “The seriousness of his placement offense outweighs
The state’s attorney, Mark Landes, raised that the prisoner had been able
to file appeals and informal complaints. However, these appeals did not alter
the prison’s decisions.
However, Judge James Gwin engaged in some questioning of his own. The judge
objected to a process in which decisions were being made by “some
functionary, somebody who doesn’t really answer to anybody.” In
reference to keeping this prisoner with a good conduct record at Level 5, he
asked, “What evidence in the record supports that?”
Landes replied, “The record of what he has done previously is
Judge Gwin commented that that was “seemingly vindictive.”
Addressing the fact that inmates kept at Level 5 never get to go before a
parole board, he went on: “Prison officials are not the Parole Board.
Doesn’t Ohio law give that authority to the Parole Board? The Parole
Board doesn’t even get a say.”
To the delight of a courtroom full of prisoner supporters, Judge Gwin then
asked: “Aren’t you a bit embarrassed by this? The inmates deserve a
hearing that’s meaningful, rather than just boilerplate.”
Each time Mr. Landes tried to reply, Judge Gwin interrupted him again. His
final shot was, “The country ought to be embarrassed.”
At that, Mr. Landes raised his voice and fired back, “Someone else had a
hand in that and that was Slider and his hand was on a ten-inch shank going in
the back of the neck of the corrections officer.”
There it was for all to see, the true motivations of the prison
system—clannish revenge and vindictiveness: you hurt one of our own and
we will never forget. The judge had cleverly gotten him to reveal them, and the
hearing was over.
Even though it is exciting to hear the representatives of the prison system get
so thoroughly pummeled the state has shown its willingness to appeal all the
way to the U.S. Supreme Court, so this is far from over. But as the prison
movement gathers momentum all across the country, prisoners will continue to
organize within the prisons and their supporters will continue to pack the
courtrooms, march in the streets and get the word out in any way we can.
Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising” is available at
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