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Lawsuit on Behalf of Prisoners in 1993 Lucasville Riot Challenges Ban on Media Access

by Ed Lyon

On April 11, 1993, hundreds of prisoners began rioting at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. The disturbance lasted eleven days, resulting in the deaths of nine prisoners and one guard. [See: PLN, June 1993, p.9; Dec. 1993, p.7].

Five prisoners were sentenced to death and many others received lengthy prison terms for their roles in the uprising. Ohio prison officials denied media access to the prisoners convicted in connection with the riot for over 20 years. In December 2013, members of the news media and five Ohio prisoners filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, seeking equal treatment regarding media access comparable to other state prisoners.

The complaint, headed by attorney Raymond Vasvari, cited numerous examples of other Ohio prisoners who had identical security classifications as those involved in the 1993 riot who were granted media access and interviews. Vasvari argued that denying media access for the prisoners involved in the riot constituted unequal treatment. The lawsuit sought a declaration that the prisoners had been unconstitutionally denied media access, and preliminary and permanent injunctions to prohibit prison officials from denying “in-person media access” absent an appealable “specific, factual basis” for such denials.

The case gained increased importance in 2017 when one prisoner, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, spoke to researchers for a Netflix series called “Captive.” Ohio prison officials punished Hasan, rescinding his email and phone privileges.

The defendants in the suit sought summary judgment, which the district court granted in part and denied in part in March 2017. Prison officials then revised their “Media Policy Death Row and Executions 01-COM-13 and Media Policy 01-COM-09,” deleting “catch-all” reasons for denying media access. In August 2017, the news media plaintiffs were granted access to death row prisoner George W. Skatzes, who had been convicted of killing two prisoners in the 1993 riot. The defendants then moved to dismiss the case and the plaintiffs objected.

The basis for the objection was the ease with which prison officials could revert to their prior unconstitutional ban on media access. Regardless, the motion was granted in November 2017. U.S. District Court Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. held there was “no reason to doubt the genuineness of their [prison officials] revocation of the allegedly wrongful policies,” and wrote the defendants had “successfully met their burden of showing that the wrongful behavior Plaintiffs refer to could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

The plaintiffs have since appealed that ruling to the Sixth Circuit. See: Hanrahan v. Mohr, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ohio), Case No. 2:13-cv-01212-EAS-EPD. 

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Related legal case

Hanrahan v. Mohr