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Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising

By Staughton Lynd; Temple University Press, 2004; soft cover, 244 pages.


Reviewed by Karen G. Thimmes

Death Row in Ohio is located at Mansfield Correctional Institution, a stone's throw from the fabled Mansfield Penitentiary, where much of the Shawshank Redemption was filmed. But for four men, conveniently categorized as worst of the worst," Death Row is a tiny cell with a solid steel door and 23-hour-a-day lockdown. They are housed in Ohio's SuperMax prison in Youngstown and, together with George Skatzes (kept at Mansfield for attention to his medical problems), are known as The Lucasville Five.

Ohio has branded them riot leaders" in the Lucasville prison uprising of 1993.
Retired attorney, prisoner advocate and former labor activist Staughton Lynd describes conditions in his book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising at Lucasville (actually SOCF, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility), a maximum security facility and one of the most violent prisons in the country, in the late 1980's. It had its factions--the Muslims, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Gangster Disciples--but each kept pretty much to itself, and there was little conflict. Men were mostly single celled. [Editor's Note: Lucasville was the prison at issue in Rhodes v. Chapman, 101 S. Ct. 2392 (1981) where the supreme court held that it was not unconstitutional to double cell prisoners so long as the totality of conditions" did not violate constitutional norms.]

Along came a new warden in 1990, Arthur Tate, who wanted to impress Luke's population with what a tough, no-nonsense guy he was, especially after a prison teacher was murdered by a mentally unstable prisoner. He ordered double celling, and in particular, forced celling of blacks and whites. [Editor's Note: prisoners had previously filed suit and won relief requiring integrated cell assignments.] He encouraged snitching. He forbade prisoners to open their windows, even though the air circulation system malfunctioned. Prisoners were permitted only one five-minute phone call a year and had to march to meals in formation. King Arthur" Tate ruled with an absolute, iron hand, and the repercussions of his edicts" were bound to cause friction, discontent and fights.

Tate raised the ire of Muslim prisoners by calling for a mandatory TB test which would inject a tiny quantity of alcohol under the skin. Lucasville's Muslim community strongly objected, for introduction of alcohol in any form or amount into the body was forbidden by their dictates. Tate and his administration got a second opinion" from Muslim leaders at two mosques in Ohio and told the SOCF Muslim leaders that those imams had no objections to the intradermal method. But we are followers of the Hanafi Math-hab of South Africa," SOCF imam Siddique Hasan countered, and they do not condone this method." Tate called in Hasan and his lieutenants for a courtesy conference at which he told them that skin tests were going to be administered and all prisoners would take them without exception. Do you have anything to say?" Tate asked Hasan, who responded, This is not a meeting where what we say makes a difference. It is a meeting where you are being a dictator and have adopted a hardline approach. You are not being understanding and sensitive toward our leadership position on the test.

And so the stage was set for an uprising, with the Muslims highly inflamed over the TB testing method, and the majority of the prison population disgruntled and discontent. Mr. Lynd relates in a detailed event chronology how the uprising started and spread. The eleven day uprising and prison siege is one of the longest in U.S. history. Ultimately, one guard and nine prisoners were killed by the rebels before they surrendered.

He also examines in great detail the farce of the post-riot trials. The state relied highly on snitch testimony, going so far as to intimidate and coerce prisoners to say the right thing" in return for parole consideration. Anthony Lavelle, the chief snitch, testified at three different defendants' trials that he was present at a meeting where the murder of a guard (Vallandingham) was discussed, but no final decision was reached, suggesting that the actual killing was a rogue action by other prisoners, rather than a planned action.

The state had at its command the resources of the State Highway Patrol and great sums of money, while the defense was hampered by a smaller budget, thus restricting how much expert testimony, ballistics and forensic experts and research they could hire.

Prosecutors went to considerable lengths to portray a conspiracy, and conspirators are guilty even if commission of the planned action was impossible. However, conspiracy cannot be punished by death in Ohio, so prosecutors substituted the charge of complicity," a capital crime. This charge includes aiding and abetting as well as soliciting another to commit a crime," and anyone complicit shall be prosecuted and punished as if he were a principle offender." Prosecutors argued as well that the course of conduct" involved purposeful killing or attempt to kill two or more persons." This language may have been instrumental in the prosecution's indictment of each of the Five for two or more murders. Snitch Roger Snodgrass testified at trial to the existence of a pact" between Muslims and the Aryan Brotherhood, but was vague about how he knew this as a fact. Thus his testimony is hearsay and certainly should not have been presented as a substantial factor in a capital trial!

In Ohio, the most famous name arising from the Lucasville riot is not one of the Five, but guard Robert Vallandingham, who became a martyr through his death allegedly at the hands of the Five plus other prisoners. Little is ever said about the nine prisoners who died in the riot.

A hostile venue may have contributed to the outcome of the Five's trials. Their juries included few African-Americans (2 of the Five are white). Heavy and sympathetic media coverage of Vallandingham's death and his mother's visibility and calls for vengeance contributed to bias. The decision" to kill Vallandingham was at the heart of the theory of group guilt.

Other factors in the trial process of the Five were: carelessness, sloppiness, inaccuracies, and misstatements; withholding exculpatory evidence and not permitting certain witnesses to testify; judicial overreaching; admission of tapes, some barely audible, made by the FBI in the tunnel below L-Block during prisoner meetings during the riot--a violation of Ohio wiretap law (but permitted by the Ohio Supreme Court, who opined, &the idea that rioting prisoners are entitled to privacy in plotting the deaths of guards and other prisoners is absurd); inconsistencies and perjury in snitch testimony; and overriding of one juror's reservations.

In Hasan's trial, the judge repeatedly barred testimony and witnesses explaining the causes of the riot, insisting, This case is not a case concerning a riot. The riot occurred incidentally&. This is a murder case, a felonious assault case, a kidnapping case&."

Lynd includes portraits of the Five, all of whom he came to know personally, and adds his own important impressions of the men, the circumstances, and the riot. Men of differing races and ideologies found themselves united against the administration and came together for a short time as a brotherhood, a convict race." The leadership roles into which the Five were forced during the uprising, and the subsequent retaliation against them, cemented their solidarity with one another. Given the bias and flaws in the trials, Mr. Lynd speaks strongly in favor of an amnesty, citing the amnesty following the infamous riot at Attica.

The state's zeal to convict the riot leaders" illustrates its need to identify scapegoats for the murder of Vallandingham and destruction of property, gives the appearance of serving justice, and reveals a dual hidden agenda: justifying the need for a SuperMax" prison surpassing Lucasville in security and deprivation, and bringing perpetrators to justice, regardless of whether they are really innocent. And once again we see that, despite the platitudes about rehabilitation offered by prison administrators, the real goal of prisons is revenge, punishment, and profit.

This book has been banned by the Ohio prison system. Initially the decision was left up to individual prison mailrooms, and the book was permitted at SOCF. But officials decided that a map of L-Block was incendiary" and forbade Ohio prisoners to possess the book&and the truth.

Prisoners outside Ohio may obtain a copy of this book free, thanks to an arrangement with the publisher by Mr. Lynd--by writing Barry Adams, Business Manager, Temple University Press, 1601 N. Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19122.

Karen G. Thimmes is a long time Ohio prisoner rights activist.

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