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Sixth Circuit Upholds Denial of Interviews with Lucasville Prison Riot Participants

by Derek Gilna

The April 1993 riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville resulted in the deaths of one guard and nine prisoners. Journalists have long tried to interview some of the prisoners involved in that uprising, including Siddique Abdullah Hasan and Keith LaMar – both now on death row – but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) denied their requests.

The prisoners and journalists filed suit; the district court held some of their claims were moot and denied other claims, and dismissed the case. That dismissal was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on September 26, 2018.

As noted by the appellate court, “plaintiffs in this case are prisoners who participated in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot and journalists who unsuccessfully sought in-person, recorded interviews with these prisoners, ... [who] brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the prison’s interview policies violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” [See: PLN, July 2018, p.44].

The district court granted partial summary judgment to the ODRC, affirming the ban on interview requests for prisoners held in Restrictive Housing units, but denied summary judgment for those housed in general population.

Accordingly, the ODRC changed its policy to allow media interviews with general population prisoners, rendering that claim moot; the district court then dismissed the suit, and the journalists and prisoner plaintiffs appealed.

The principal case in the prison censorship context is Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). As the Sixth Circuit noted, “federal courts must take cognizance of the valid constitutional claims of prison inmates,” since “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Consequently, “[w]hen a prison regulation or practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights,” the appellate court stated, citing Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

Nonetheless, “the constitutional rights that prisoners possess are more limited in scope than the constitutional rights held by individuals in society at large.”

The Court of Appeals then considered the four Turner factors, to determine if the ODRC’s denials of the media interview requests were related to “legitimate penological interests” and therefore constitutional. “First, there must be a ‘valid, rational connection’ between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it,” the Court stated. “If this first factor is not met, “the regulation is unconstitutional, and the other factors do not matter.” But if the first factor is met, then the court must “balance the three remaining considerations: (1) whether alternative means of exercising the right remain open to prison inmates; (2) the impact that accommodation of the right would have on guards, other inmates, and on prison resources; and (3) ‘the absence of ready alternatives.’”

The appellate court noted that prison regulations do not have to be “content neutral,” and that restrictions may be upheld due to legitimate security concerns. In regard to the ODRC’s ban on media interviews with prisoners held in Restrictive Housing units, the Sixth Circuit wrote, “although the Lucasville riot occurred 25 years ago, it is reasonable for ODRC to fear that the leaders of the Lucasville riot, who already have and will continue to have ‘a disproportionate degree of notoriety and influence among their fellow inmates,’ ... will gain even more notoriety and influence from further exposure.”

The Court of Appeals concluded there is “a rational connection between a policy prohibiting face-to-face interviews with Lucasville participants and the legitimate, neutral penological interest of prison security,” therefore “the challenged restrictions are constitutional, as they are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

With respect to the ODRC’s policy change concerning media interviews with prisoners held in general population, according to the Court, “Normally ‘a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice,’ in this case the interviews, ‘does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.’” However, “cessation of the allegedly illegal conduct by government officials has been treated with more solicitude by the courts than similar action by private parties,” because government “self-correction provides a secure foundation for a dismissal based on mootness so long as it appears genuine.”

Since there was no longer a “live case or controversy” in the case, the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s grant of the ODRC’s motion to dismiss all claims. See: Hanrahan v. Mohr, 905 F.3d 947 (6th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Hanrahan v. Mohr