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Ohio ACLU Challenges Supermax

The ACLU has filed a class-action suit in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the conditions of confinement at Ohio's supermax prison in Youngstown. The lawsuit alleges that conditions at Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) constitute cruel and unusual punishment, violating both the United States Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The complaint seeks only injunctive and declaratory relief.

"This is a hellhole by design," said Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio. "This is a brand-spanking new prison that was created to break the will and human spirit of men."

OSP was built in 1998 at the cost of $65 million to house Ohio's worst felons, including some on death row. However, according to the ACLU's complaint, the prison administration has been more concerned with keeping the supermax full than making sure that the "worst felons" are the ones incarcerated at OSP. The complaint notes that Ohio's Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC) inspected OSP in November 1999, and found that less than half the prisoners incarcerated there clearly met Ohio's supermax guidelines. "Many inmates who remained in lesser security institutions had committed acts as deplorable as those of inmates who were sent to OSP. ... The CIIC report also noted between 1993 and 1998 the 20 supermax cells at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility did not remain full and that what Ohio needs is another maximum security prison, not a supermax.'

The complaint alleges that prisoners at OSP are denied timely access to medical care. Cases are cited in which prisoners had to wait many months for the treatment of serious illnesses. In one case, a prisoner had to extract his own rotten tooth after being promised services by a dental surgeon for weeks. In another, a prisoner who suffered a collapsed coronary artery was not seen by a doctor for four days despite his need for emergency surgery to implant a stint in the artery. In yet another case, a prisoner with a huge, growing lump on his shoulder had to wait sixteen months on the surgery list to have it removed, despite it causing him severe pain and dizziness. Prisoners with hepatitis-C are denied treatment. Often they aren't even told of their positive test result. Overly tight handcuffs and leg irons, which often cause bleeding, are reused without sterilization, increasing the risk of infection with HIV and HCV.

Typical of all supermaxes, there is extreme social isolation, restricted movement, minimal property, reduced environmental stimuli, extremely limited recreational and cultural opportunities, no vocational opportunities and extraordinary levels of surveillance and control which lasts for years, or even the entire duration of their sentence. Prisoners are confined to their windowless cells except for one hour a day for recreation in another cell and a five minute shower. The cell is illuminated all day and night and prisoners who attempt to shade their eyes to assist sleep are punished.

Prisoners leaving their cells for any reason are first handcuffed behind their backs and accompanied by two guards, one holding each arm. Full restraintsincluding handcuffs, leg irons, a belly chain, and a black boxare required for all movement outside the cell block. Prisoners remain in full restraints, chained to a pole, during interviews with psychological and religious counselors. Visitation is intentionally made difficult and humiliating to prisoners and visitors. Visiting hours are during the morning and early afternoon on Wednesdays and Thursdays, making it difficult for working adults or school children to visit. During visits, prisoners are kept in restraints with a painful black box.

A major concern of the ACLU is the mental health effects of prolonged isolation and maliciously inflicted discomfort on the prisoners at OSP. The ACLU alleges that many of the prisoners at OSP should have been classified to a mental health unit instead of a supermax, as the actions which resulted in their being sent to OSP were manifestations of mental illness. However, even prisoners who are mentally stable are likely to develop mental illness as the result of long-term isolation and institutionalized cruelty. Noting that many of the prisoners suffer from mental problems, Terry Gilbert, an attorney from Cleveland, said, "How can you not? The place creates zombies." The ACLU alleges that these mentally unbalancing conditions lead to OSP having a suicide rate fifteen times higher than the statewide average, despite greater supervision and greater difficulty in obtaining suicide-aiding instruments.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) spokesman Joe Andrews counters that the supermax "is meant for predatory inmatesinmates who commit serious crimes against people while they are incarcerated." However, Gilbert notes that in many cases OSP seems to have been used to punish well-behaved but outspoken prisoners. Additionally, many prisoners whose disciplinary infraction formed the basis of their transfer to OSP, but who successfully appealed the infraction, remain at OSP. Other prisoners, whose transfer to a lower security was recommended by the Reclassification Committee, were erroneously told that the committee recommended retention and continue to be held at OSP. Other prisoners, for whom transfer to lower security was recommended, continue to languish at OSP supposedly awaiting available space at a lower security facility.

[Editor's Note : Similar suits challenging supermax conditions are underway in Illinois and Wisconsin.]

Sources: Complaint in Austin v. Wilkinson , (U.S.D.C. N.D. OhioEastern Div.), Columbus Alive ,The Plain Dealer , ACLU of Ohio.

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Related legal case

Austin v. Wilkinson