Hunger for Death Row: Lucasville Five prisoners on hunger strike seeking death row status

(Left to right, top: Hasan, Skatzes, Robb. Bottom: Lamar, Were)

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Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), Keith Lamar (Bomani Shakur) and  Jason Robb, three of the “Lucasville Five,” went on hunger strike at Ohio State Penitentiary Youngstown (OSP) on January 3– the objective being to gain the same living conditions as other prisoners on Ohio’s death row.

Audio from Death Row: Siddique Abdullah Hasan on hunger strike (January 9, 2011) PART 1

Audio from Death Row: Siddique Abdullah Hasan on hunger strike (January 9, 2011) PART 2

These three men, along with George Skatzes (confined apart from the rest at Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution) and Namir Mateen (James Were, also imprisoned at OSP under the same security restrictions as Hasan, Robb and Lamar, but who was unable to join in the hunger strike due to diabetes), were each sentenced to death for their roles in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot– one of the longest and most violent in the nation’s history– since which they have each been held in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day– every day for the past 18 years.

The state of Ohio says the men were calculating, cold leaders of convict “death squads”, responsible for the deaths of numerous prisoners and Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) officer Robert Vallandingham.

Members of the “Five”– and numerous witnesses– say the men acted as peacekeepers who negotiated a resolution to the ten-day standoff and suppressed further violence at the hands of more “hardline” prisoner factions. (Testimony, affidavits, as well as partial transcripts from standoff negotiations to this effect can be found as exhibits attached to amicus briefs filed on behalf of Hasan and Skatzes by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation.)

Nevertheless, Hasan, Robb and Lamar have set aside their assertions of innocence for the purpose of the ongoing strike (though they have by no means abandoned their ongoing legal appeals) and are demanding only that they be allowed contact with family, access to legal resources, that they be allowed access to the media, and other basic items– such as cold weather clothing– afforded to other death row prisoners.

“It doesn’t matter where they place us, so long as we have our death row status,” said Hasan on January 9– six days into the strike.

“It seems that no matter what we do, they are determined to keep us locked down in punitive segregation– being vindictive for no apparent reason, except for the fact that they are upset about what happened at Lucasville.”

According to Hasan, the men have had contact with OSP Warden David Bobby, who he says has assured the men that their demands will be met.

“Due to the support of the people we know, as well as people we don’t know, we have the administration’s attention,” said Hasan. “And they seem like they are going to do the right thing– at least that’s the impression they give us.”

Nonetheless, Hasan says the men will not break their fast until the changes are actually implemented.

ODRC spokesman Brain Niceswanger says it is not likely the department will capitulate.

According to Niceswanger, the members of the Lucasville Five confined under Ohio’s highest security classification– known as Level 5, or “administrative maximum security”– are subject to these restrictions due not only to their alleged leadership roles in the 1993 uprising, but also due to recurring disciplinary infractions.

Under Level 5 restrictions, there is no interaction whatsoever with other prisoners.

“It is a 23-hour lock down. They are out of their cells for one hour a day for recreation, shower time, et cetera. When they are out of their cell, they are out individually, so there is not an opportunity for congregate recreation or interaction,” said Niceswanger.

Nevertheless, Hasan states that the men are not seeking to be moved into the general death row population (security level 4) and that the standard of living improvements sought are not a security risk.

But, Niceswanger and ODRC do not agree with this assessment. One example of a demand Niceswanger says would pose a direct security threat is access to the online legal database that other ODRC death row prisoners have access to.

While he did not elaborate on how access to the online legal database for Level 5 prisoners– many of whom are represented by public defenders– is a security risk, Niceswanger says this demand is mute, given the fact that Level 5 prisoners have access to legal materials through the prison law library.

According to Hasan, Lamar, and other members of the “Five,” full access to legal resources is vital so that they may assist counsel in their dwindling appeals processes. Each of the men have exhausted their state-level appeals and are fighting for their lives in federal court.

Such a need may have been illustrated On January 13– 10 days into the ongoing strike– when U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern district of Ohio, Thomas M. Rose, denied Lamar’s petition for writ of habeas corpus, through which Lamar sought to have his state convictions overturned as being unconstitutional– primarily on grounds of deprivation of due process through prosecutorial misconduct.

And evidence to support these claims continues to surface. In September, 2010, Timothy Grinnell, who is serving two life sentences for convictions relative to his role in the deaths of two prisoners murdered during the Lucasville riot (Grinnell supposedly opened a door so that “death squad” members could access their victims), filed a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence in the criminal division of the Franklin County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas.

One of the key pieces evidence cited by Grinnell– which outlines violations of due process through deprivation of the constitutional right to effective legal counsel in the same legal proceedings which led to the convictions of the Lucasville Five– is a draft of a 1995 complaint to the Ohio Supreme Court by temporary defense counsel Niki Schwartz. In the complaint Schwartz states that the judge who oversaw several of the Lucasville trials held ex parte meetings with the state’s special prosecutor for the purpose of selecting defense counsel likely to facilitate guilty pleas in Lucasville-related cases.

Because of such developments and because they contend the state of Ohio is more than happy to close the chapter on the Lucasville riot and subsequent prosecutions, the striking prisoners say they are willing to starve for access to every available legal resource.

The other key demand of the striking prisoners is that of partial contact visits (meaning that physical contact can be made through a small opening in a visitation window) with family, and access to the media through in-person interviews. Niceswanger says that these demands most likely will not be met, as none of the 93 prisoners under Level 5 security in Ohio have access to either the media or partial-contact visits. The media blackout, says Niceswanger, is not unique to members of the “Lucasville Five.”

However, as indicated in a letter from Columbus Dispatch reporter Kevin Mayhood to Hasan, dated February 19, 2003, ODRC had adopted a policy of blocking media access specifically to Hasan and other prisoners convicted of riot-related offenses: “this week prisons chief Reginald Wilkinson decided no inmates convicted of riot crimes will be permitted to speak to us,” stated Mayhood.

Niceswanger says he has no knowledge of any such policy decision laid out by former ODRC director Wilinson. (A public records request submitted by DBA Press for documentation pertaining to media policy and prisoners convicted of Lucasville riot-related offenses is ongoing.)

Interestingly, perhaps indicative of ODRC’s attitude toward media interaction with members of the Lucasville Five, the audio statement of Hasan released by DBA Press on January 11 was investigated as a possible breech of security restrictions.

According to a January 14 Columbus Dispatch article, ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith stated that the recording (made via telephone) may constitute a “violation.” Smith could not be reached for comment.

“We were not aware this recording was out there until we were contacted by (Columbus Dispatch reporter) Alan Johnson, so we asked OSP to check,” said Niceswanger. “If he’d (Hasan) have claimed he was making an attorney call– an attorney-privilege call, which is not a monitored call, then that would have been a rule violation. And inmates have used that ploy in the past to make calls to press… We checked with OSP and I guess your number is on his call list.”

As for other claims behind the rest of the prisoners’ demands– ill health effects due to limited exposure to sunlight (through the one hour allowed per day in what Niceswanger refers to as the “exercise cage”), no access to warm weather clothing– Niceswanger says he has no knowledge of any such issues or complaints.

As of January 14, Niceswanger said Hasan and Lamar have both refused 34 consecutive meals. Robb, who began his strike a day later, had missed 30 consecutive meals.

According to Niceswanger, the men are being monitored by OSP medical staff. If the chief medical officer determines that the strike has reached a point where either prisoner death or other long-term damage may result, he will order forced intravenous “treatment.”

*Subsequent events:

On January 20, ODRC spokesman Brian Niceswanger stated that on Friday, January 14, ODRC decided to accommodate the demands of the hunger striking men.

According to Niceswanger, the men would be provided with access to the department’s online legal resources, partial-contact visitation, expanded access to commissary items (such as additional clothing and food items), as well as some extended recreational time out of their cells.

Niceswanger said that this last item, this extended rec time, would be provided to the prisoners two days per week but he was not able to provide further details.

“These were all things that had been discussed prior to the beginning of the hunger strike,” said Niceswanger on January 20. “So now those things are going to be taking place.”

Niceswanger said that Robb ended his hunger strike during the lunch meal of Friday, January 14. Niceswanger said Hasan and Lamar ended their strikes during the lunch meal the following day.

He said the prisoners had been notified of the capitulation on the 14th. When asked why Hasan and Lamar had continued to strike after this announcement, Niceswanger said he believed the continued action may have been “tied” to a protest planned by supporters outside OSP on the 15th.

“They were notified of the privilege changes on Friday, and Robb ended his strike at that time,” said Niceswanger. “Lamar and Sanders (Hasan), for reasons known only to them, continued for another day.”

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For more background on the Lucasville uprising/riot and subsequent prosecutions, consult the source material directory for this story.

To read more about the hunger strike, click here for coverage as provided by Voice of Detroit.


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