[Ppnews] A Welcome Prison Victory at Youngstown

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 19 15:05:24 EST 2011

A Welcome Prison Victory at Youngstown

by Denis O'Hearn

Three death-sentenced men went on hunger strike in Ohio State 
Penitentiary on January 3 to win the same rights as others on death 
row in the state.  On Saturday January 15, the twelfth day of their 
protest, a crowd of supporters gathered in the parking lot by the 
tiny evangelical church at the entrance to the prison on the 
outskirts of Youngstown.  They ranged from the elderly and religious 
to human rights supporters to members of various left groups.  They 
were expecting to participate in the first of a series of events in 
coming weeks to support the men on their road to force-feeding, or 
even possible death.  Things did not turn out as expected.  For once, 
this was for the better.

The day's events began when a small delegation made up of the hunger 
strikers' relatives and friends (Keith Lamar's Uncle Dwight, Siddique 
Hasan's friend Brother Abdul, and Alice Lynd for Jason Robb), went up 
to the prison through the snow and ice to deliver an Open Letter 
addressed to OSP Warden David Bobby and Ohio's state prison 
officials.  The letter, which supported the demands of the hunger 
strikers, was signed by more than 1,200 people including the famous 
(Noam Chomsky), human-rights-leaning legal experts from Ohio and 
around the world, prominent academics and writers, and ordinary 
retired teachers and religious ministers.  It was Saturday, so Warden 
Bobby was not there to meet the delegation, but he'd been aware of 
their coming and left someone at the front desk to take the letter.

Hopeful word of a settlement of the hunger strike had been 
circulating among a few friends and activists for two days.  It was 
definitively confirmed that morning when visitors to Jason Robb 
received a copy of a written agreement from Warden Bobby (see below) 
outlining a settlement that provided practically all of their 
demands, despite his insistence at the beginning of the strike that 
he would not give in to duress.

Although the hunger strikers told me that they were optimistic from 
the very beginning, there were grounds to expect a harder 
battle.  Bomani Shakur (Keith Lamar) described an incident with the 
Deputy Warden at the beginning of his protest.

"You know, LaMar, a human being can only go so long without food," he 
chided Shakur.

"Yeah, I know," replied Bomani, "but according to the state of Ohio 
I'm not human, so I don't have to worry about that!"

Nonetheless, Warden Bobby and his deputies had been meeting with the 
hunger strikers for some days and they agreed that they would end 
their protest upon receipt of the warden's letter.  Friends and 
relatives who came to visit Siddique Hasan and Keith Lamar (aka 
Bomani Shakur) told visiting friends and relatives similar details 
about the end of the strike.  Both men said that they had resumed eating.

Shakur told one of his friends that he'd "just been eating 
hot-dogs."  She replied that it was crazy to eat such things on an 
empty stomach.  Bomani just laughed and said, "but I was hungry, man!"

The delegation returned to the crowd and began the rally.  The 
surprise was revealed to all.  The hunger strike was over.

Jason Robb's victory statement was relayed to the crowd.  He wanted 
to thank everybody for their support, for without it the men would 
have won nothing.  But now, he said, it was time to shift the focus 
to the fact that five men, including the three hunger strikers, are 
awaiting execution for things they did not do.

"The energy around our protest went viral," he told Alice and 
Staughton Lynd on a prison visit.  "This time around the fight was 
for better prison conditions.  Now we begin fighting for our lives."

Why a Hunger Strike?

The "Lucasville Five" includes the three hunger strikers plus Namir 
Mateen, who did not join the hunger strike due to medical 
complications, and George Skatzes, who was transferred out of 
isolation at OSP after he was diagnosed with chronic depression.  All 
five are awaiting execution for a variety of charges, mostly 
complicity in the murders of prisoners and a guard during the 
Lucasville prison uprising of 1993.  In a case that resembles that of 
the <http://www.angola3.org/>Angola 3 in Louisiana, they have been 
held in solitary isolation for 23 hours a day for more than 17 years, 
since the evening the uprising ended.  This is despite the fact that 
three of them helped negotiate a settlement of the uprising that 
undoubtedly saved lives, and despite a promise within the agreement 
that there would be no retribution against any of the prisoners.

The Ohio prison authorities went back on their word.  They not only 
put the five men in isolation but they built the supermax prison at 
Youngstown to hold them that way in perpetuity.  Having built the 
prison, they had to fill 500 beds, despite the fact that a small 
Secure Housing Unit at Lucasville had never been full.  But the 1990s 
were the decade of the supermax.  So men who were charged with minor 
offences found themselves locked up in Youngstown on "Level 5 
security," meaning that they were held for 23 hours a day in a cell 
no bigger than a city parking space.  The steel-doored cells and even 
the recreation areas where they spent an hour a day were built in 
such a way as to ensure that they would never have contact with 
another living being -- human, animal, or plant.  "Outdoor 
recreation" was in a cement-walled enclosure that was only outdoor if 
you consider that the roof is a steel grille.  Hundreds of men have 
come and gone since 1998.  Only four, the three hunger strikers and 
Namir Mateen, remain locked up in perpetual isolation.

A case is underway in the Middle District Court of Louisiana that is 
likely to judge this kind of treatment as a violation of the eighth 
amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.  It may be 
that the Ohio authorities see the handwriting on the wall and they 
want to improve the conditions of Ohio's supermax before they are 
forced to do so by another court ruling, like the 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilkinson_v._Austin>Wilkinson vs Austin 
case of 2005 in which the US Supreme Court forced them to improve 
conditions in the supermax.

One of the holdings of the Supreme Court instructed the Ohio 
authorities to follow Fifth Amendment provision on due process.  In 
2000, two years after the supermax opened, they began giving annual 
reviews to the death-sentenced Lucasville prisoners.  But the reviews 
are not meaningful.  One of the reviews even concluded, "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."  Thus, the four have been condemned to de facto 
permanent isolation.

This lack of meaningful review, as well as the continued lack of 
human contact despite the agreement that ended the Youngstown hunger 
strike, might yet be the focus of litigation not just in Ohio but in 
other supermaxes around the United States, such as California's 
notorious "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The conditions of supermax are a running sore on the US human rights 
record, a sort of elephant in the room that few people want to talk 
about.  Yet there is a growing sentiment among experts and 
policymakers against extreme isolation, both because of its cost but 
also due to the judgment that it is a form of torture.

And it is these conditions of extreme isolation, without hope of ever 
touching a fellow human apart from a prison guard, that drove these 
men to the ultimate protest of hunger strike.  As Bomani Shakur wrote 
in <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/shakur070111.html>a 
statement that announced his hunger strike, none of the men wanted to 
die.  But in such conditions of isolation, and in the absence of any 
way of proving to the authorities that they were not a security risk 
if allowed to mix with other prisoners or have semi-contact visits, 
depriving themselves of food was the only non-violent means of 
protest that remained for them.

What Now?

For the Lucasville Five, the main attention turns now to their 
wrongful convictions and to the death penalty itself.  Ohio is the 
only state in the US that executed more men in 2010 than in 
2009.  And it is second only to Texas in its rate of executions.  For 
the past two years, the state has attempted to execute one man a 
month, although that attempt has been slowed by botched executions 
and by some surprising grants of clemency by former governor Ted 
Strickland.  One can only hope that moves away from the use of the 
death penalty in states like New Mexico and, most recently, Illinois 
are the beginning of a more general move to do away with this backward policy.

The hunger strikers expressed their hopes, to relatives and other 
visitors, that the energy that built up around supporting their 
recent protest could now be turned toward getting them off their 
death sentences and allowing them to prove their 
innocence.  Ironically, the improved conditions that they won through 
hunger strike could help in this regard.  Among their demands -- 
increased time outside of their cells, semi-contact visits, and equal 
access to commissary -- was the demand that they be allowed to access 
legal databases like other death-sentenced prisoners, so that they 
could work toward their appeals.

For now, this is most important to Bomani Shakur.  In a shocking 
recent decision, a district court judge affirmed the recommendation 
of the magistrate against his petition for habeas corpus without any 
discussion of the merits of the judgment.  Shakur believes that the 
judge made this seemingly rash judgment in retaliation for his role 
in the hunger strike.  Whether he has reason to believe this or not, 
he and his counsel now have to turn to the Federal Court of Appeals 
for the 6th Circuit.  In real terms, what might have been a further 
process of five years to execution now seems to have been shortened 
to perhaps three.  The US judicial system is strongly biased against 
appeal, even in most egregious cases of injustice.  So the Lucasville 
Five now have a hard case to argue.  It is a case where public 
opinion and social movement may have more impact than the law, just 
as public pressure seems to have played a decisive role in winning a 
successful end to the hunger strike after such a short period.

Bomani Shakur told Alice and Staughton Lynd that the denial of his 
habeas petition by the district court makes him more determined and 
focused on what he needs to do in the next few years.  Activists and 
supporters in Ohio and beyond will be asked to find the same kind of focus.

The Agreement That Ended the Hunger Strike

The Agreement That Ended the Hunger Strike


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