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Tensions Rise in Ohio Prisons

A PLN subscriber wrote to describe a "mini riot" which occurred June 3, 1997, in one of the dorms at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion, OH. He reported that six prisoners and two guards were injured.

The disturbance "was brought on by the severe takeback of our property rights. As with nothing to lose and acting up likewise," the prisoner wrote to PLN. "With the parole board giving out long and often unjustified continuances, what do they expect?"

On July 9, 1997, prisoners at the Orient Correctional Institution (OCI) located near Columbus, OH, set fire to 8-dormitory. Fires were reported in the gym, two other dorms (7 and 4E). Several small trash fires were also ignited in other locations around the prison. Fire departments from three surrounding communities responded. The prison was locked down. Buses were brought in to evacuate 400 of OCI's 2,100 prisoners because smoke and fire damage rendered 8-dorm uninhabitable. Prison officials pegged the damages at $75,000.

"What instigated the fire," writes a PLN reader at OCI, "was the beginning of a punishment program last night called Responsible Adjustment Standard Bay (RASB). Last night 64 prisoners were ordered to report to the punishment program, and 34 prisoners refused and were placed in the hole."

"They either went," said prison spokesperson Robin Knab, "or they went to isolation. Whenever you start a new program... the inmates are not going to be happy."

"Prison officials," another OCI prisoner wrote, "informed the news media that prisoners were rebelling against a 'treatment' program, but actually it was a punishment program. These prisoners had been punished [for dirty U.A.s] and spent months in isolation and endured other forms of restrictions for their misconduct. Some of the rule violations they were being punished for now [by assignment to the RASB dorm] dated back as far as 1990. Without notice or any sort of appeal process, these prisoners were ordered to report to the punishment program and told they would have to endure [a minimum of] six more months of new restrictions."

After the fire was set in 8-dorm, which housed the RASB program, prisoners report that a chief security officer told 8-dorm guards, "Don't open that gate." Prisoners said they had no way of escaping the smoke, so they began kicking out the metal screens covering windows in order to climb out.

"Recent mass shake-downs and the destruction of prisoners' personal property greatly increased the tension and hostility,'` writes another OCI prisoner who sent PLN a copy of The Wire, the official joint rag. In it is a column by senior guard Major Morris, called "Major's Memos."

"Recent shakedowns have produced large amounts of contraband," writes the major. "During strip searches, evacuation of living areas and complete searches of living areas, we have taken drugs, junk, state property and excessive property. The crew on second shift has done a good job during these searches in confiscating contraband.... Each officer on each shift is requested to do at least five searches per shift."

The major's words lend credence to the claims of numerous OCI prisoners that the rise in tensions are the result of official administrative policy. Prisoners complain of guards stealing their property. Guards call the property contraband because, as the major says: "If an inmate has more property than fits into his footlocker then the property is to be confiscated and a conduct report written."

"It's out of hand here at OCI,'' writes one prisoner, "and we desperately need outside intervention. Prisoners have no voice in these matters and no way to effectively resolve these issues in a peaceful manner. Letters to legislators go unanswered. Letters to the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee were completely ignored. The public needs to understand that this entire incident has been carefully orchestrated by prison officials, and they have pushed prisoners too far."

A similar uprising erupted August 5, 1997, at the Southeastern Correctional Institution (SCI) near Lancaster, OH. According to published news accounts, about 30 SCI prisoners refused to enter a dormitory after two prisoners were placed in isolation for planning a demonstration.

Ohio prison official Joe Andrews said that the two prisoners had planned to lead a sit-in to protest overcrowding and small meal portions.

As word of the standoff spread, prisoners in other parts of SCI started small fires and broke windows. Prison officials claim that order was quickly restored and damage was minimal. About 180 SCI prisoners were transferred to other prisons following the disturbance.

On September 5, 1997, an uprising erupted on Ohio's death row at the Mansfield Correctional Institution (MANCI) after one unnamed prisoner overpowered a guard, got the keys, and unlocked the cells of 36 other death row prisoners.

"Something failed," MANCI warden Ralph Coyle told The Columbus Dispatch. "Either policy failed or a human failed. Obviously, some changes need to be made."

MANCI's death row holds 173 condemned prisoners in five 40-cell pods. The disturbance was reportedly confined to one pod. Prisoners gained control of that pod after the three officers working there fled. Five hours later, a tactical unit stormed the pod with tear gas and regained control.

The disturbance may have been linked to death-row prisoner William Berry's desire to abandon appeals and become the first Onio prisoner to be executed since 1963, OH prison director Reginald Wilkenson told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Warden Coyle said that Berry, who was beaten during the uprising, is unpopular with other death-row prisoners, but he refused to say what caused the disturbance.

Sources: Reader Mail, numerous Ohio newspaper accounts.

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