April 11 marked the 25th anniversary of the Lucasville Uprising. What began as a peaceful protest over the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility’s plans to force Muslim inmates to take a skin prick tuberculosis test that would expose them to alcohol quickly turned into a full-scale rebellion. Ten hostages — nine inmates and a guard, Officer Robert Vallandingham — were killed. A surrender was negotiated after prison authorities accepted a 21-point agreement.
However, a no-retaliation pledge was violated soon thereafter. Close to 50 inmates were convicted and sentenced, mostly on trumped-up charges, in relation to Vallandingham’s death. Five — Imam Hasan Siddique Abdullah Hasan, James Were (aka Namir Abdul-Mateen), Keith Lamar (aka Bomani Shakur), James Robb and George Skatzes — remain on death row. Lamar could receive an execution date this year.
Four of the five, along with most other Lucasville defendants, are housed at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. On the anniversary of the rebels’ surrender, April 21, the four, along with Lucasville defendant Greg Curry, were abruptly stripped of phone and email access. After a four-day hunger strike and a massive countrywide phone-in campaign, their rights were restored.
Below is the second part of an interview with Imam Hasan, conducted by Workers World Contributing Editor Martha Grevatt in April.
Martha Grevatt: What else can you say about the retaliation?
Imam Hasan: [State prison director] Reginald Wilkinson said that no one who was convicted as a result of the Lucasville uprising would be allowed to meet with the media. Why not? If they want the truth to be known, they should be happy that prisoners would be meeting with the media. They was trying to conceal the truth; they swept a lot of dirt up under the rug.
They was continuously denying us the opportunity to meet with the media for two reasons. One, based on the content that we would be talking about — the Lucasville Uprising and the conditions that led to it. The second thing was that it would cause undue hardship on the family members of Officer Vallandingham or those who was harmed as a result of the uprising.
The court ruled that those were constitutional violations. The court ruled prisoners in the general population who was involved in the Lucasville Uprising can meet with the media. However, the court agreed that prisoners in restricted housing units are not allowed to meet with the media.
At one point we was more or less in general population status here. But when the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio and [longtime supporters] Staughton and Alice Lynd filed a lawsuit, the prison authorities changed our status to “extended restricted housing unit” or some term like that. But we’ve been here for going on 20 years, have not had any major infractions or conduct reports and there’s no reason why we should not be under general population status, so we’re challenging their decision. Hopefully, that will grant us access to the media because the media do want to talk to the four of us [in Youngstown] on death row.
When we got here, death row prisoners had access to the computers so they could do research on their cases and participate in the appellate process with their lawyers. We did not have that opportunity. They had access to all the food and sundry packages from the food vendors. We was not afforded the opportunity to do that. We was not given the opportunity to have contact visits with our family like [other] death row prisoners.
So, on January the 1st, 2011 — a couple of weeks after Georgia prisoners went on a work stoppage — we were on a hunger strike. And after 14 days we was granted a resounding victory. That’s when we started having access to the computer room. They allowed us to have semi-contact visits with our families, and then it went on to having full contact visits. We were able to touch our nieces, nephews, family, friends and loved ones, and we was given more recreation time out of our cells and other benefits.
But up to that point, 2011, we was experiencing punitive punishment. They was treating us in the worst conditions that a person could possibly be treated. They had put us in a position of being some of the most lowdown, psychologically depressed human beings in the world.
MG: Talk about the five capital murder cases.
IH: There are five of us who were sentenced to death as a result of the Lucasville Uprising. Four of us are on death row for the murder of Officer Vallandingham. George Skatzes, he was charged with Vallandingham’s murder, but he was given a death sentence for other murders.
George is being housed at Chillicothe Correctional Institution. When OSP first opened, you had people like Sen. Bob Hagan from the Youngstown area, they didn’t want people who were mentally disturbed being housed here or people who was paranoid schizophrenic, and George Skatzes falls under the latter category. So Staughton and Alice Lynd was successful in getting him from down here. That’s why he’s in Chillicothe Correctional Institution with other death row inmates and [we are] the only people here [on death row from the uprising]. We’ve been here 20 years come May the 7th. Ohio State is a supermax [prison], built as a result of the Lucasville Uprising in 1993.
All of our cases is being held up through the discovery process. The only exception is Keith Lamar. He done been through the district court, 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the case was turned down. So a lot of people are expecting him to get a death sentence some time this year.
In Ohio, anybody who gets a date, they gotta go to the back of the line. May 2021 is when the last person is scheduled to be executed.
Now if for some reason they move his case to the front of the line, we wouldn’t be surprised, but it would be obvious to the world and it would give us more ammunition to work with. The chances are if he gets an execution date, it’ll be sometime 2021. He has some new attorneys now, they working on his clemency.
I’m not a pessimistic type person, nor is he, but him and I have talked and we both agree, let’s be realistic. None of us have anything coming from the Ohio Parole Board, if they haven’t even let model prisoners who’ve been convicted as a result of the Lucasville Uprising regain their freedom and granted them parole. We being on death row, and falsely accused of being the ringleaders within the Lucasville Uprising, what would make any of us think that the parole board’s going to recommend clemency for us? If it does [happen], obviously we’ll celebrate it, but he’s not under any illusion that he going to be granted anything when he is given an execution date.
But I would say for the most part the four of us, we’re doing pretty good.
MG: Where are the rest of you in the appeal process?
IH: All of the other cases is still in the federal district courts. From that [they go] to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
My case and Robb’s case been sitting for 17-plus years in the same court. The magistrate judge in my case [Judge Michael Merz] just made a recommendation to the district judge, Susan Dlott, and we’re challenging his ruling. A magistrate judge can only review the case and make a report and recommendation to my judge, and my judge can either accept his report and recommendation or reject it.
Judge Merz was also the magistrate judge in Keith Lamar’s case, and I remember him granting Keith an evidentiary hearing. [Supporters] from the Cleveland area and other places actually attended that particular hearing, and he commended them. But when all was said and done, his report and recommendation was not favorable in Keith’s case, and is not favorable in my case.
The reason my case was held up for so long is because [Merz] made a lot of erroneous rulings, and we would file a motion for reconsideration. He denied them. Then, if a case came out of Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that was favorable toward some of the same issues I was raising in my case, we would file another motion for reconsideration; he would turn that down. If a new case came out of the U.S. Supreme Court, we would file another motion for reconsideration. He would turn it down. So when he was making all these erroneous rulings, he would actually be giving us the opportunity to bite some time from the same apple.
We got until the end of May to refute what [Merz is] saying and then we’ll wait and see what decision Judge Dlott makes. Jason Robb has a different judge.
I’m fortunate enough to have a nice defense team. Altogether, I have 10 people currently working on my case, seven attorneys, two investigators and one paralegal.
MG: What are conditions like now?
IH: At one point, the food actually did get better, but when Aramark came to the system, the food has changed tremendously. The food is basically inadequate nutritionally and unsanitary.
After the Lucasville Uprising, there had been some changes with regards to the phone system and the medical system. Then, when the state allegedly went into a financial crunch, they started taking a lot of guys off important medications that they actually need, trying to save money.
Usually you take one or two steps forward and then you end up going one or two steps backward; that’s usually how the system works. They take something away and then you end up protesting or taking a stance, and it seems like they giving you something but all they giving is what they already took from you.
MG: Did you stop the TB test?
IH: It’s been stopped, but not as a result of what we did. I was just telling you about the state being in a financial crunch. The last five years, they no longer give TB tests; they give you a survey and if you answer positive on two of the survey questions, then they will do a follow-up test. Hell, that is the same thing that we basically asked for before the uprising.
Had they have given us a survey 25 years ago, 10 people’s lives would not have been lost. Many others would have not been physically harmed or injured; people would have been now out of prison, among their family, friends and loved ones; the state would have not had spent $80 million to build a prison and for court costs. It was a lot of negative things that’s happened physically, mentally, spiritually and financially as a result of Warden Arthur Tate Jr. wanting to adopt a hard-line approach.
MG: What would you like from the progressive movement?
IH: What we would like to see is for more and more people get involved. If we ever expect to receive some meaningful results, we have to reach out to a cross section of the community, and in the last five years I’ve been actually focusing on that: the national media, working with people in podcasts, speaking on campuses, trying to encourage people to get involved.
I understand that people in this society, they have their own problems, some of them are living from paycheck to paycheck. But at the same time, what they may do to us, they may also do it to the next person.
Take, for example, when they use humvees and drones and different things overseas. People may say, “Oh, that’s them people over there in the Middle East.” But the reality is that when soldiers and other personnel come back home, [the government doesn’t] just discard and get rid of the equipment. They bring that same equipment back home, bring it to the inner cities and use that same stuff on their citizens.
So people must be concerned about our case. They must really be raising the issue about justice, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently raised from the Birmingham, Ala., jail, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So I’m saying that people have to lift up their voice and be heard, that they’re asking for a complete and impartial investigation with regards to the Lucasville cases.
We would like the public to do showings of the documentary [“The Shadow of Lucasville”]. Since the state will not allow us to meet with the media, give us the opportunity to speak on college campuses, religious communities, before organizations or places where people congregate. Because we think if we can get our message out to the people, and have the people to rally around us, at important times — for example, if Keith Lamar is given an execution date — we can use that rallying cry from the people to bring attention to the gross miscarriages of justice that happened with regards to the Lucasville cases and convictions, which are a serious affront and travesty of justice.
MG: What are your thoughts, as you reflect back after 25 years?
IH: I mean, for all of us, we’re dealing with it. We have no choice, and when I think about what my ancestors who came from the African continent, what they had experienced during the Middle Passage, being in a hostile environment on ships, suffocating from stench, being starved, some of them did not want to tolerate the injustice they was experiencing and as a result, many of them jumped overboard. They had control over their life and they decided that it’s best to go ahead and take it, and give me liberty or give me death, because the slaveholders was not going to grant them their freedom.
We still have our sanity. Islam keeps me strong. We put forth our best effort to expose the gross miscarriage of justice.
In 2011, I lost four family members, my aunt, my nephew Troy Davis [an innocent man executed by the state of Georgia], my mother and my cousin. Keith, Jason and Nameer lost family members. So we have all been through a lot of trials and tribulations but we remain strong, we remain unbroken.
MG: Why is this struggle important for the working class?
IH: We have to understand our struggle is one and the same. The same government is oppressing all of us, but they try to pit us against one another. The proletarian has to come together. We are enduring slavery; we’re not provided appropriate compensation, just like Fight for 15. It is a class struggle along with a racial struggle.
Trump is catapulting a lot of people to activism and people understand they can’t sit idle. He’s a maggot, a bigot, a racist and a sexist. Enough is enough!