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Work Strike Suppressed and Sabotaged in Ohio

The October 16th, 1997, issue of the Cleveland black community newspaper The Call and Post printed a letter announcing a statewide work strike by Ohio prisoners on November 1st. The letter was signed by Prisoners United For Equal Justice.

The purpose of the protest was to demand an end to the two-tiered system of sentencing created by Senate Bill 2, a "truth in sentencing" measure passed in July of 1996. Prisoners sentenced after the passage of SB 2 serve the time given to them by a judge. Prisoners sentenced before the bill took effect are under the thumb of Ohio's Parole Board -- a dictatorial body of 12 who are appointed for life, whose decisions cannot be held to any objective criteria, and who are answerable to no superior.

Prisoners in Ohio regularly receive 10 and 20 year parole continuations--"flops"and even "superflops" of 30 to 40 years. Prisoners For Equal Justice contend this amounts to double and triple jeopardy at the hands of the parole board, and creates a dangerous "atmosphere of hopelessness" in Ohio's prison system. An estimated 39,000 prisoners out of Ohio's total 47,000 have their futures controlled by the Parole Board.

The letter to The Call and Post was itself the organizing tool for the strike, as many prisoners throughout the state subscribe to the weekly. At Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg the impending strike caused a spate of dialogue between the prisoners and some prison employees, with several prominent employees reportedly ack- nowledging that prisoners "got to do what they got to do." But when the day of the strike came the general population was locked-down, and prisoners got to do nothing. A prisoner in segregation reported that guards circulated asking prisoners if they planned to strike, and demanding that they say it on video camera, with the video to be shown later at their parole hearing.

A prisoner at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion estimated 15 percent of prisoners participated there, and, according to Karen Thimmes of CURE-Ohio, 87 prisoners were transferred to other prisons to hurt the strike's chances of success. At Orient Correctional Institution in Columbus a prisoner activist reported that nearly 300 prisoners received conduct reports for refusing to work (200 of which were later dismissed), 30 to 50 prisoners were transferred, and several prisoner activists were put in the hole. Red Armstrong was one of those infracted: he was accused of writing the letter to The Call and Post and spent 15 days in disciplinary segregation for it. At Madison Correctional Institution in London, only a handful of prisoners reportedly participated in the strike. But at London Correctional Institution, also in London, where prisoners had only had two days notice of the strike, the level of prisoner cohesion was high, as only 150 prisoners went to lunch, and 400 to dinner, out of a population of more than 1,800.

A main obstacle to the strike was that it started on a Saturday, so food workers were disproportionately put on the line. The reason for this timing was unclear, but might have resulted from a desire by strike organizers to have their protest coincide with the 5th Ohio Prison Activists Conference at Oberlin College, which took place the same day.

But prisoners wanting nonviolent protest faced other problems, primarily a lack of support from prominent outsiders and prison reformists. At Grafton Correctional Institution a well-respected prisoner leader withdrew his support at the last minute because of his close ties to Cleveland senator and president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Jeff Johnson, who urged against the strike.

Paula Eyre, Chair and President of CURE-Ohio, the state's largest reform group of prisoners and prisoners' families, authored a letter stating that CURE-Ohio was opposed to the strike, on the grounds that it "has too much potential to turn violent." She continued: "CURE-Ohio has worked hard over the last two years to bring a legislative solution to the unfair actions of the Ohio parole board," and such a violent turn in the strike "would quickly undo all that work... We want to urge every prisoner not to participate in this work stoppage," she concluded. The letter was posted by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) in most cell blocks in every prison in the state.

At issue was the question of prisoners' right to act for themselves. CURE-Ohio seeks to work cooperatively with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and does not support even nonviolent prisoner activism as a consequence. Senator Johnson epitomized the "sit tight, let us do it for you" attitude of Ohio's penal reformers by stating in his press release on the strike: "It is extremely important that Ohio's prisoners let the legislature and other advocacy groups do their job. Any type of drastic measure will offset any chances for positive reform in the future."

ODRC head Reginald Wilkinson added threats to the urgings of reformists: "Inmates who attempt to lead, encourage, or coerce other inmates to participate in any form of boycott will be dealt with severely, including a potential loss of parole release," stated his letter that was posted in prisons throughout the state. "It is expected that all inmates respond to their assignments and not allow the desire of the few who would create chaos to make the lives of all Ohio's inmates much more difficult for a very long time."

CURE-Ohio's hopes for easing prisoner anger in Ohio rest on Senator Johnson's Senate Bill 182, which would equalize some of the more glaring injustices in Ohio's present parole system, such as making the parole board responsible to a set of guidelines, and getting rid of life terms for members (Ohio is the only state in the Union where parole officials have no term limits). Even optimistically, the bill will take a couple years to wind its way through a quite conservative legislature hostile to prisoners. Some prisoner activists contend the bill does not go far enough, as it ignores sex offenders, technical parole violators, lifers, or repeat offenders. Creating a just parole system would mean releasing thousands of prisoners who are doing more time than their judges originally intended; needless to say, a daunting prospect to any politician wishing to be re-elected.

The mix of repressive measures and paternalistic sabotage that cut the strike short have frustrated many prisoners, who see nonviolent protest as essential, so as not to give the mainstream media further chances to demonize prisoners or prison officials an excuse for further ratcheting up security levels.

Still, it would be wrong to call the strike a failure. Such events never fail to shake up prison officials, who have shown their fear of Ohio's prison movement by suspending with pay one ODRC employee who attended the activists' conference at Oberlin, and threatening to revoke the parole of an ex-offender who spoke there.

Organs of power were listening to the prison protest as well. The Cleveland Plain Dealer acknowledged the validity of prisoners' concerns about an unjust parole system and recommended that the system be changed. They editorialize that the presence of the attempted work stoppage and at least five mini-riots or rebellions in Ohio in 1997 "suggests more tension than a prudent state should allow."

Several prisoners have continued to carry out protest individually. John Perotti, a long-time prisoner activist now at Trumbull, was in segregation at the time of the strike, so stopped eating in solidarity with the strikers. When the strike ended, he continued the fast, adding some grievances over his own case and brutal treatment to the generalized protest against the parole board. He fasted for over a month. Danny Cahill, another prisoner activist, currently confined at Orient, began a fast without food or water January 1st, demanding the resignation of CURE-Ohio board members who signed the letter to Ohio prisoners urging them not to strike. Roughly 1,100 of CURE-Ohio's 1,800 dues paying members are prisoners, and Cahill contends they need committed activists, not advocates, supporting them. Cahill's hunger strike lasted seven days and no members of CURE-Ohio resigned.

Cahill stated in regards to prisoner activism: "We have endured far too many abuses and degradations. We have a right to stand up and resist." He summed up the situation in Ohio's prisons, not as a threat but as a lament: "If we can't have peaceful protest, what's left?"

Staughton Lynd, a long-time labor activist currently doing prisoners' rights work in Youngstown, addressed the dilemma faced by prisoner activists in Ohio seeking substantive changes: "People on the inside want to feel like there are people on the outside with whom they can take joint action. And I think they're in a state of confusion as to who that is."

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