Re-Examining Lucasville: Essay 3: A Tragedy?

By Staughton Lynd

When people use the word “tragedy,” they ordinarily mean something completely bad and sad, like the mass killings in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

Almost as many human beings were killed during the eleven-day uprising in Lucasville (ten) as in the Aurora movie theater (twelve). But does the word “tragedy” adequately describe what happened at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility?

I think the correct answer is, Yes, but in two different ways. One of the meanings the dictionary gives for “tragedy” is “a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair,” a “calamity,” a “disaster.” The dictionary gives an example: “the tragedy of the President’s assassination.”

And certainly the Lucasville Uprising was such a tragedy. The ten persons murdered were unarmed and outnumbered. They never had a chance.

But the dramatic presentations in ancient Athens or in Shakespeare’s London were tragedies in a second sense. The “tragic hero” in these plays, like the Greek king Oedipus, or Hamlet and Othello in the plays of Shakespeare, was a well-intentioned person who had a “tragic flaw.” The flaw was some aspect of the hero’s character that brought him down and caused his destruction.

One can look at the Lucasville events in this way, too. When prisoners sought to occupy L block they did not intend to kill anyone. The prison administration cannot be fairly accused of desiring the death of Officer Vallandingham.

Somehow the chain of events spun out of the control of both sides, prisoners and prison administrators. Things happened that nobody wanted to happen.

Let’s take a closer look. How did the uprising begin? What were the hopes of the prisoners involved? What about the state’s response? Why did the authorities turn off the water and electricity, and rebuff the prisoners’ attempts at negotiation, on Monday, April 12? How important were the words used by the state’s public information officer, Tessa Unwin, on April 14?

What Prisoners Hoped Would Happen

During the early afternoon of Sunday, April 11, a group of Muslim prisoners gathered on the recreation yard. They had been discussing all week Warden Tate’s plan of testing every prisoner for TB by injecting a substance that the Muslims believed contained alcohol, in violation of their religious beliefs. The prisoners’ proposal that the test be done by some other means had been rejected by the warden. Additionally, prisoners had learned that SOCF was to be locked down while officers went from cell to cell and injected prisoners, by force if necessary, in full view of other prisoners. Prisoners working in the kitchen reported making bag lunches, presumably to feed inmates during the lockdown.

There was a precedent for a relatively brief and essentially nonviolent occupation of a cell block that appeared to achieve results. In October 1985, conditions in J block, the disciplinary cellblock at SOCF, had deteriorated badly. Prisoners, among them John Perotti, Jay D. Scott and Eric Swofford, overpowered two guards and held them hostage for 15 hours. The inmates demanded transfers and better conditions, and described their demands to the media over prison telephones. The guards were released unharmed. Conditions improved.

In 1993, according to Muslim informant Reginald Williams, prisoners believed that if they could create just enough disturbance at SOCF to cause Columbus headquarters to intervene, Warden Tate’s intransigence about how to conduct TB tests could be overcome.

Williams testified in the first trial of James Were a.k.a. Namir Abdul Mateen in 1995 that “we were going to barricade ourselves in L-6 until we can get someone from Columbus to discuss” how the TB tests might be done. On cross-examination there was the following exchange:

Q. You’re saying the plan was to have a brief barricade in order to bring attention to the fact that religious beliefs were being trounced upon?

A. Exactly.

Seven years later, after Namir’s conviction had been vacated and the case returned to the trial court for a second trial, Williams repeated that the Muslims’ plan was to occupy only a single living area, L-6, so as “to get someone from the central office to come down and address our concerns.”

Williams also testified that when prisoners first approached the guards in L block there was no intention to hurt them. Williams himself encountered Corrections Officer Michael Stump, “put the knife to his neck, and informed him to give me his keys and he won’t get hurt. . . . He was saying, Don’t stab me. And I was telling him: I’m not going to stab you. I just want the keys.” But Stump reached for the knife and it broke in such a way that Stump held the blade. “So at that time guys just started jumping on him, because he had the knife in his hand.”

As in this encounter between prisoner Williams and Officer Stump, so throughout the seven occupied living areas or “pods” of L block prisoners and officers faced off and, after brief hostilities, officers were injured and taken hostage. What those who began it seem to have imagined as a brief, nonviolent demonstration had become a full-scale prison rebellion.

Late the next morning, April 12, prisoners George Skatzes, with a megaphone, and Cecil Allen, carrying a very large white flag of truce, went out on the recreation yard to try to negotiate an end to the uprising. Skatzes said over and over that he and the other prisoners in rebellion wanted no harm to come to the hostage officers. After several frustrating minutes of shouted conversation, Skatzes called out:

“We’re trying to do something positive. All you’re doing is fucking us around.”

Actually, Skatzes was correct. The State of Ohio and prison authorities did not want an early end to the disturbance.

The Strategy of the Authorities

Remarkably, even astonishingly, the State of Ohio admits that when prisoners tried to negotiate, prison authorities deliberately stalled.

Sergeant Howard Hudson of the Ohio State Highway Patrol was a member of the state’s hostage negotiation team during the eleven days and its principal investigator after the surrender. Testifying in Hasan’s case, Hudson stated:

The basic principle in these situations . . . is to buy time, to maintain the dialogue between the authorities and the hostage taker and to buy time. . . . [T]he basic principle is to maintain a dialogue, to buy time, because the more time that goes on the greater the chances for a peaceful resolution to the situation.
State v. Sanders, Tr. at 2719, 2721 (emphasis added).

As it turned out, he could hardly have been more mistaken.

Indeed, not content merely to drag out negotiations, prison authorities aggravated the situation on the morning of Monday, April 12 by cutting off both water and electricity to L block.

One effect of cutting off water was to cause human waste to back up in L block toilets. The result of cutting off electricity was more serious. Prisoners could, and did, monitor the ongoing crisis as presented in the media by using battery-powered radios. But by shutting down electric power, the state prevented prisoners from using conventional means to broadcast their message—their description of prison conditions and their demands for change—to the world.

Prisoner Anthony Lavelle was handy with electricity and by early Monday morning had improvised loud speakers. As he put it, he “hook[ed] a PA system up somehow.” He found a six-foot-tall speaker that was bolted into the ceiling of the gym, and extracted it. He positioned the system in L-7. Through it the occupiers could direct a message toward the SOCF parking lot. Another prisoner, the late James Bell a.k.a. Nuruddin, had made a tape with a list of demands.

After the besieged prisoners started playing the demands, a helicopter used by the state drowned out the sound. The prisoners stopped playing the tape, then tried again, and again the helicopter “drowned it out.” Shortly thereafter, Lavelle testified, “the power was turned off, so that was the end of that.” State v. Sanders, Tr. at 3632-3633.

The prisoners’ notion that the authorities cut off power in order to obstruct their communication with the outside world is confirmed by Officer Larry Dotson, a hostage in L block throughout the eleven days. He writes that reporter Tim Waller from WBNS-TV Channel 10 had offered on TV to help with negotiations. Warden Tate, according to Dotson, ordered the electricity cut off to L block. Gary Williams, Siege in Lucasville: The 11 Day Saga of Hostage Larry Dotson (Bloomington: 1st Books Library, 2003), pp.
120-121.

Cutting off water and electricity had a still graver consequence. A morning meeting of prisoner representatives on Thursday, April 15, decided that unless the authorities restored water and electric power they would consider killing a hostage. At the direction of his colleagues, Skatzes used the telephone to communicate to negotiators for the authorities that if there was no immediate step toward restoration of utilities a hostage officer might be killed. There was no response, and, in a sequence of cause and effect we will discuss in another essay, Officer Vallandingham was murdered. Dotson reports that his fellow hostage Officer Anthony Demons stated immediately after his release on April 16 that Officer Vallandingham’s death was caused by cutting off water and electricity in L block. Id., p. 166.

Exhibit 1

The foregoing helps to explain why the prisoners began to use sheets hung from windows to communicate

Exhibit 2

with the world outside L block, and why two of these sheets (see Exhibits 1 and 2) stated in large letters, “THE STATE IS NOT NEGOTIATING” and “This Administration is Blocking the Press from Speaking to Us!!!”

But there was one more well-intended but harmful episode that contributed to the tragic death of Officer Robert Vallandingham.

Why Tessa Unwin’s Statement Mattered

About mid-morning on Wednesday, April 14, a public information officer for the prison department named Tessa Unwin met with representatives of the media. As was the case throughout the rebellion, reporters, who lacked any access to objective information about what was going on inside L block, spun scraps of alleged information into hypothetical horrors.

The reporters asked Ms. Unwin about sheets hung from the windows of L block that threatened to kill a guard. She answered, according to a tape of her remarks:

It’s a standard threat. It’s nothing new, that if we don’t have something in three and a half hours, we’re going to kill a hostage.

It’s not a new thing. They’ve been threatening things like this from the beginning. It just happened to be something they hung out . . . .

We’re talking to a lot of different people. Like we’ve said before, you know, some of them will get on and make a threat, some of them will get off and make a concession. That’s just how it goes. State v. Robb, Tr. at 1045-1046.

In themselves, Ms. Unwin’s words were accurate and seem to have been intended to quiet the overdramatic apprehensions of the media.

However, in the context of prison culture as understood by both prisoners and correctional officers, her message communicated a lack of respect. All sources agree that Ms. Unwin’s words provoked a strong hostile reaction among prisoners in L block, listening on battery-powered radios. Officer Dotson, although blindfolded, heard a dramatic increase in “verbalized tensions.” He reports shouts of “they don’t think we’re serious” and “we are going to have to give them one before they will take us seriously.” Siege in Lucasville, p. 107.

What is fascinating is the assessment of the correctional officers’ union, even after the end of the uprising. Here it is:

The circus-like atmosphere surrounding media coverage of this event took on tragic dimensions . . . when an off-hand comment by a Department press spokesperson was aired to the inmates. . . . [R]eporters began to interrogate the Departmental spokesperson regarding inmate death threats against the hostages which had been displayed on sheets hung from L-block windows that day. Instead of providing the standard “no comment” response, the spokesperson dismissed the threats by stating that they were merely “part of the language of negotiations.”

As anyone familiar with the process and language of negotiations would know, this kind of public discounting of the inmate threats practically guaranteed a hostage death!

. . . When an official DR&C spokesperson publicly discounted the media threats as bluffing, the inmates were almost forced to kill or maim a hostage to maintain or regain their perceived bargaining strength.

Ohio Civil Service Employee Association, AFSCME Local 11, Report and Recommendations Concerning the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (Aug. 1993), p. 71 (emphasis added).

The AFSCME report concludes: “While it is impossible to ascertain the precise reason that Officer Vallandingham was murdered the following day, hostage accounts that his death was a direct result of this blunder by the Departmental spokesperon are logical and credible.” Id., pp. 71-72. I agree.

Conclusion

This tangled fabric of good intentions and unintended consequences is one of the basic reasons that so many individuals and organizations are coming to feel that amnesty, or group forgiveness, is the right thing to do at this time.

Certainly, as will become abundantly clear in later essays, the trials following the uprising offer a powerful additional argument for amnesty. The verdicts and sentences of these trials were based almost entirely on the uncorroborated, unreliable testimony of prisoner informants (“snitches”) who received tangible benefits in return for what they said in court.

Yet the even more basic fact is that the Lucasville rebellion was not merely a contest of Good Guys and Bad Guys. The decision to build a prison in an all-white community, where more than 90 percent of the guards were white men drawn from the area and more than 50 percent of the prisoners came from inner-city ghettos, set the stage for trouble. The further decision to implement a more restrictive prison regime after the tragic death of Beverly Jo Taylor in 1990 made trouble an everyday event at each of the more than 1500 cell fronts in SOCF.

We should finally keep in mind that only four years after the Attica uprising, Governor Carey of New York declared a general amnesty. The Lucasville defendants, five of them condemned to death, will as of April 2013 have endured twenty years of almost continuous solitary confinement.

It is time for amnesty in Ohio.