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Ohio Death Row Uprising

In the November '97 PLN , we reported "Tensions Rise in Ohio Prisons." Our coverage of the September 5, 1997 uprising on Ohio's death row at the Mansfield Correctional Institution (MANCI) was based entirely on published press reports, and as such was woefully inadequate. PLN has since obtained several first-hand accounts, which we report here.

At 5 p.m. on September 5 a prisoner working as a porter overpowered a guard and took his keys. That guard and two others working in the area then fled. All of the pod cell doors were opened using the guard's keys.

There are conflicting reports about what happened next. One source says he saw two prisoners beating a third. Another source said that "No one was doing anything" but just milling around and that guards could have come into the unit any time and peacefully regained control. Not much else happened for five hours.

Just before 10 p.m. about 60 highway patrol cops and 50 prison guards stormed death row. One prisoner says he looked through the window of his cell and saw men in gas masks. Then came a loud banging like the firing of shotguns. A tear gas canister shot through his window, shattering the glass and causing minor cuts on his arms. He says at least five canisters of tear gas were shot into his cell. He tried to put his face up to the broken window to get air. A guard sprayed liquid mace through the hole.

Another prisoner reports essentially the same treatment: his cell door window shattering as tear gas canisters are fired in, trying to get air at the window and being sprayed in the face with liquid mace. "Over the next 25 minutes, the guards tossed in 13 canisters of tear gas into our cell," one prisoner reported.

"After an hour the guards came to our cell door, told us to strip to our underwear, then get up against the back wall. Then they burst into the cell, pulled us down to the ground on our stomachs and cuffed us. One guard stomped once on my head, once on my face, then stood on my face and ground his boot into it, while other guards stomped on my bare feet, legs and kicked me in the ribs, and another one knelt on my back and sprayed a whole can of mace in my eyes and face, burning my skin until it actually blistered."

Details of this phase of the assault are fairly consistent. Prisoners report being cuffed, maced, and severely beaten. One prisoner suffered a skull fractured and several broken ribs. At least seven prisoners were injured seriously enough to require hospitalization. Most of the rest received little or no medical attention.

The prisoners were taken to a maintenance building, dressed in orange jumpsuits and laid on a bare cement floor, still cuffed behind their backs. "They kept us there for five hours and wouldn't let us go to the bathroom. Two prisoners urinated on themselves where they lay."

Meanwhile, guards rampaged through the death row pod, destroying prisoners' property. "The guards smashed 20 TV's and as many radios," reports one prisoner. He says he lost "60 embossed envelopes, 7 legal pads, 4 bags of coffee, 3 cans of tobacco... 2 pairs of running shoes, a black sweat-suit, a fan, 15 music cassette tapes, a family photo album, 20 writing pens, a bag full of personal letters..." Essentially all of his property was smashed or confiscated. All 37 prisoners suffered similar property loss.

As to the cause, Sonny Williams, a former prisoner and coordinator of the Ohio Prisoners' Rights Union said, "I know from my contact with prisoners that it was the conditions on death row and the repression against the Lucasville Five that were the main reasons for the uprising."

The Lucasville Five -- George Skatzes, James Were, Jason Robb, Keith Lamar and Siddique Abdullah Hassan (formerly Carlos Sanders) -- started a hunger strike in 1996 to protest the isolation and specific punishments focused on them. There was another hunger strike, lasting for 30 days, in 1997. Little changed in the way of conditions, however, especially the extra isolation and punishment focused on the Lucasville Five.

Williams summed up: "The prisoners were demanding their constitutional and human rights, and the prison administration ignored them and retaliated with more repression. I wasn't surprised that this [rebellion] happened, because when prisoners are oppressed and treated like animals, they're gonna respond to get the word out about the conditions that they re living in."

Revolutionary Worker ,Against All Odds , Reader Mail, Skatzes/Lucasville Five Support Bulletin No. 6

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