In 1993, the maximum security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio was the site of an historic prisoner rebellion, where more than 400 prisoners seized and controlled a major area of the prison for eleven days. Nine prisoners alleged to have been informants and one hostage correctional officer named Robert Vallandingham, were murdered. Following a negotiated surrender, five key figures in the rebellion were tried and sentenced to death. Known since as the Lucasville Five, they are Namir Abdul Mateen (James Were), Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), Bomani Hando Shakur (Keith Lamar), George Skatzes, and Jason Robb.
The Lucasville Five are now back in the news with a simultaneous “rolling hunger strike” organized by four of the five, beginning January 3. They are using the hunger strike to protest their convictions (having always maintained their innocence) as well as their living situation, which is more restrictive than for most prisoners on Ohio’s death row.
Staughton Lynd is the author of the 2004 book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, which asserts that the Lucasville Five are innocent men, who were framed by the State of Ohio. In a review of Lucasville, Solidarity concludes that “Lynd presents sufficient evidence and argumentation to cast more than reasonable doubt on the convictions of the Lucasville Five.” The book’s “immediate agenda is to mobilize public opinion to achieve amnesty for the Lucasville Five. In the 1970s, the governor of New York was compelled to grant amnesty to the Attica rebels based upon revelations of state malfeasance. Lynd contends the Lucasville Five’s death sentences should be wiped clean on the same grounds.”
In the foreword to the upcoming second edition of Lucasville, being released by PM Press in February, death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal writes that the Lucasville Five “sought to minimize violence, and indeed, according to substantial evidence, saved the lives of several men, prisoner and guard alike . . . they rose above their status as prisoners, and became, for a few days in April 1993, what rebels in Attica had demanded a generation before them: men. As such, they did not betray each other; they did not dishonor each other; they reached beyond their prison ‘tribes’ to reach commonality.”
Angola 3 News: Can you please give us some historical background on the 1993 uprising and the subsequent convictions of the Lucasville Five?
There were revolts at the old Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus in the late 1960s. The state government decided to build a new maximum security prison in a town called Lucasville, just north of the Ohio River separating Ohio and Kentucky.
The new prison housed between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners. More than half the prisoners at the new Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) were African Americans from cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. Lucasville was all white and inevitably, most of the correctional officers at the new prison were Caucasian.
‘Luke’ developed a well-deserved reputation for violence. There was a horrible incident in 1990 when, in a sequence of events that remains ambiguous, a black prisoner followed a white teacher into a women’s restroom. White guards broke down the door to the restroom and, as they did so, the prisoner cut the teacher’s throat.
The State sent in a new warden who instituted ‘Operation Shakedown.’ Prisoners were allowed one short telephone call a year, at Christmastime.
In April 1993 the new warden proposed to test all prisoners for TB by means of an injection. More than fifty Muslim prisoners protested. They said the injection would contain phenol, a form of alcohol; that this was forbidden by their religion; and that there were alternative means of testing for TB, by sputum or X ray. Warden Tate said it would be done his way, by injection, beginning Monday, April 12.
On April 11, Easter Sunday, prisoners returning from the recreation yard occupied one large housing block, L side. Guards were overpowered. Persons severely injured in the takeover, both guards and prisoners believed to be snitches, were carried out to the yard. Eight officers were held as hostages. In the course of an 11-day standoff, nine prisoners and one hostage guard were murdered. There was a negotiated surrender.
Why was this story so important to you that you decided to write a book about it?
In 1996 my wife and I became aware that as a result of the Lucasville uprising, a new maximum security prison called the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) was being built in Youngstown. We organized a community forum at which one of the speakers was Jackie Bowers, sister of one of five prisoners condemned to death after the surrender. We met her brother, George Skatzes (pronounced ‘skates’). His lawyer told us that we could best help by investigating facts not presented at trial and we have been doing that ever since.
The importance of the story is that the five men sentenced to death are three blacks and two whites. Two of the three blacks, Siddique Abdullah Hasan and Namir Abdul Mateen, are Muslims. At the time of the rebellion the two whites were members of the Aryan Brotherhood. One is still an AB leader although Skatzes has withdrawn. These five men have acted in solidarity during their almost eighteen years of solitary confinement. They have refused to ‘snitch’ on each other.
What facts do you cite for arguing that the State of Ohio deliberately framed innocent men?
My allegation that the State of Ohio has deliberately framed innocent men is presented in a book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press, 2004), a second edition of which will be published in 2011 with a Foreword by Mumia Abu Jamal, and in a law review article, “Napue Nightmares: Perjured Testimony in Trials Following the Lucasville, Ohio, Prison Uprising,” Capital University Law Review., v. 36, No. 3 (Spring 2008). The key fact is that the State made it clear early on that they wanted to put the alleged leaders of the disturbance to death, and built cases against the Five almost wholly on the basis of testimony by prisoners who, in exchange for their testimony, received benefits such as early parole.
Why you believe the trial itself was unfair?
The trials were unfair for a variety of reasons, but the two basic facts were: 1) the Five were tried before so-called ‘death-qualified’ juries, that is, juries from which persons opposed to the death penalty were excluded; and 2) the prosecution’s evidence, as I indicated earlier, came almost entirely from prisoner informants in exchange for bargained-for benefits like parole.
How has your 2004 book been received?
My book was banned from all Ohio prisons and it provoked a good deal of discussion in Ohio. In 2007, a play based on the book was presented in seven Ohio cities. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed friend of the court briefs, based on the book, in the trials of Skatzes and Hasan.
Can you please tell us more about the hunger strike? How do prison officials publicly justify these conditions that are being challenged?
As to the goals of the hunger strike, I refer the reader to Keith LaMar’s statement. LaMar emphasizes that he understands the prison system’s concern for security, but, he insists, a ‘privilege” such as the opportunity to touch a parent or other relative does not threaten security. The more than 150 other death-sentenced prisoners in Ohio enjoy such privileges. On the other hand, the Lucasville Five are held alone in their small cells 23 hours a day and, when released for an hour of so-called recreation, cannot be in the same space as any other human being.
Can you please explain why George Skatzes is not currently housed alongside the other four members of the Lucasville Five and how his conditions differ from the others?
George Skatzes was transferred to OSP when it opened in 1998 along with the other members of the Lucasville Five. He was transferred out two years later because the authorities feared that he was so depressed that he might commit suicide. He is held with about thirty other death-sentenced prisoners considered seriously mentally ill at the Mansfield Correctional Institution, north of Columbus.
How can our readers best help to support the hunger strike?
Readers can help by contacting Professor Jules Lobel, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and Professor Denis O’Hearn, director of graduate studies in sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton, <email@example.com>. They are circulating a statement of support nationally and internationally.
Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.
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