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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 OSP.

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 his behavior.”

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 enough.”

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 Leftbooks.com.