History books often contain a chapter that tries to answer the question: What caused such-and-such a revolt or revolution?
For example: What caused the “Boston Massacre” in 1770 when British troops stationed in Boston fired on a crowd that was pelting them with frozen snowballs and oyster shells? What caused the “Boston Tea Party” of 1773 when chest after chest of tea imported from Great Britain was thrown into Boston harbor? (Hint: There had not been a new tax.) What caused the beginning of actual warfare at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775?
The truth is that it is very difficult to be sure why human beings suddenly throw caution to the winds, and, knowing that there may be enormous consequences, take a stand and risk everything. Unsure as to the real causes of a rebellion, the historian may take refuge in a chapter title like “The Gathering Storm.”
Let’s see if we can do better regarding the causes of the longest prison uprising in United States history in which lives were lost, at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, April 11-21, 1993.
The Authorities’ Account of Causes
After the rebellion, there were several official investigations and reports as to why the “riot” had occurred. Among these were:
– A report commissioned by Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) director Reginald Wilkinson on “The Initial Hours,” 3 to 6 p.m. on April 11, 1993. This inquiry focused on the intriguing question, Why didn’t the authorities respond more quickly and effectively when the disturbance began in L-block? [After the Storm, and The Aftermath, added by ed.]
– A Time Line concerning the activity of the Hostage Negotiating Team. [ed.: see pp. 261-270 of this report where Lucasville is a Case Study]
– A report by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, prepared in November 1993, and largely devoted to rebutting facts alleged in the work of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC). (The CIIC is an oversight body consisting of four members of the Ohio Senate and four members of the Ohio House of Representatives).
– An “Interim Report” on the riot by the CIIC, issued on April 11, 1994.
– A report entitled “Technical Assistance Visit” by Lanson Newsome, a criminal justice consultant.
– The most substantial investigations conducted after the end of the uprising were the so-called “Mohr Report,” overseen by legislators headed by Gary C. Mohr, presently ODRC director;
– A report by AFSCME Local 11, the union of correctional officers;
– and a report by prison expert Steve Martin, in support of a lawsuit filed by Attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein on behalf of various parties injured during the eleven days.
The Mohr Report, entitled “Disturbance Cause Committee Findings” was issued on June 10, 1993, only two months after the beginning of the disturbance. The Report called attention to a series of objective factors including:
∙ Following the murder of SOCF educator Beverly Jo Taylor in 1990, Warden Arthur Tate was appointed and instituted a set of repressive practices known as “Operation Shakedown.”
∙ SOCF was overcrowded. Operation Shakedown established a population ceiling of 1,609. On April 11, 1993, the prisoner population was 1,804. Three quarters of the maximum security prisoners at SOCF were double celled.
∙ After an assault in 1992 on a correctional officer at the Mansfield Correctional Institution (ManCI), and the officer’s subsequent death from medical negligence, 492 close or medium security prisoners were transferred from SOCF to ManCI. About the same number of prisoners, many of them young and militant and 96% of them classified maximum security, were transferred from ManCI to SOCF.
∙ SOCF was located in an overwhelmingly white community just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. The great majority of correctional officers were white; 57% of the prisoners were African American. Between January 1992 and April 1993, 74% of all reported use of force cases involved black inmates.
Among the documents attached to the Mohr Report there is one of particular interest. Some prisoners have speculated that the warden, or the guards, wanted a riot at Lucasville so as to justify construction of a new “supermaximum security” prison or the employment of more correctional officers. In the Mohr Report appendix there is a letter from Warden Tate to South Region Director Eric Dahlberg, dated March 22, 1993, approximately three weeks before the disturbance began. (See Exhibit 1)
The letter seeks funds for a “maximum security unit . . . to be constructed in the existing space formerly known as the death-row recreation area in J block.” Jason Robb worked as a plumber in SOCF at the time. He says he saw the blueprints for the new “unit.” It was to be a free-standing structure, half underground, with 100-150 cells. (The supermax built at Youngstown after the uprising had cells for 504 prisoners). Jason recalls flags in the grass of the rec yard to mark the boundaries of the proposed building.
The immediate cause of the uprising was Warden Tate’s insistence that prisoners submit to testing for TB by means of injection of a substance containing phenol, which many Muslim prisoners believed to be a form of alcohol.
On April 5, 1993, the warden convened a meeting with three Muslims: Siddique Abdullah Hasan; Namir Abdul Mateen also known as James Were; and Taymullah Abdul Hakim also known as Leroy Elmore. The Muslims explained their concern and called attention to alternative means of testing for TB. After the meeting, Hasan sent a “kite” or written message to the warden that stood his ground but was extremely conciliatory in tone.
The “Report and Recommendation” of the guards’ union contains a remarkable statement about Warden Tate’s response. The union Report states that the warden’s response “appears unnecessarily confrontational” and was “a perhaps misplaced display of ‘we are running the prison’ attitude.” Report, Bate-stamped page 00112 and note 14.
Mr. Martin’s Report made use of many depositions and investigative interviews with prison staff. Martin concluded that:
1) Three members of the warden’s staff warned him not to proceed with a plan for TB testing that would cause the whole prison to be locked down and each prisoner to be injected in his cell, if necessary by force, in plain view of other prisoners in the pod;
2) Warden Tate departed SOCF on the afternoon of Good Friday, April 9, leaving an institution in which staffing levels would be “dangerously low” because of the Easter holiday and without informing relatively inexperienced weekend shift supervisors of the “volatile” state of the prison.
The most important document produced by the authorities concerning the causes of the rebellion was a memorandum written several years before April 1993. Indeed, it was written in 1989, before the murder of educator Beverly Jo Taylor, and before the consequent appointment of Warden Arthur Tate and the beginning of Operation Shakedown.
The document in question is a memorandum, dated November 30, 1989, written by Shirley Pope, Senior Research Associate, CIIC [Correctional Institution Inspection Committee], addressed to Terry Morris, Warden, SOCF. It is entitled “Concerns Pertaining to Unit Management and Snitch Games.” It is stamped CONFIDENTIAL.
The memorandum begins by describing how it came to be written. From August 21, 1987 to November 1, 1989, 427 prisoners (more than a fifth of SOCF prisoners) wrote to the CIIC.
According to Ms. Pope, 180 prisoners, or 42 percent of the total number of SOCF correspondents, wrote to the CIIC about concerns pertaining to “Personal Safety.” The next most frequent category of complaints was “Complaints Against Staff,” voiced by 119 or 28 percent of prisoner correspondents.
Also, between March and November 1989, CIIC staff interviewed more than 102 prisoners. As of the date the memorandum was written, an additional 91 prisoners had requested interviews, and “more have been interviewed when they visited this office after being paroled from SOCF.” Staff, too, had been extensively interviewed. These interviews, Ms. Pope stated,
were like no others in my nearly 12 years with the CIIC. . . . They spoke of the relationship between snitch games and unit management, violence, gangs, racial tension, drugs, gambling, sex and extortion rings, job assignments, cell assignments, unit moves, lack of personal safety, fear of other inmates and distrust of staff.
Beginning in Fall 1986, the memo went on, there had been increasing reports from prisoners whose lives had been threatened or who were being extorted,
“some of whom had attempted or were contemplating suicide due to their denial of PC [Protective Control],”
as well as an increase in complaints from
“those seeking transfer for personal safety reasons, some of whom had already been stabbed.”
Specific incidents reported to the CIIC included the account of an officer who “wrote that he paid $50 to an inmate to stop a hit [a stabbing] on another officer,” and the murder of prisoners Tim Meachum, Billy Murphy, and Dino Wallace.
“Snitch games,” as understood by Ms. Pope, implicated staff who
”reportedly broke confidences by running to the predator with what was said, or reportedly lying to the gang with claims that the inmate snitched on them regarding their drug deals, [and] those who reportedly caused unwarranted disciplinary action to be taken against an inmate as a reported favor to a snitch.”
Regarding weapons, the memorandum narrated, it was alleged that knives could be bought from staff, and that
“a staff person allegedly provided a gun that is reported to be hidden in the institution (whereabouts unknown).”
Inmates claimed staff had approached them
“offering to make it worthwhile if they would stab another inmate.”
One victim of a stabbing claimed that he knew it was coming because his cell was shaken down daily to ensure that he would have no weapon when attacked.
“A security staff person reportedly apologized to him afterwards, explaining that he has a family. . . . In another case, after a stabbing, a staff person reportedly approached the inmate who [had done the stabbing] and said, ‘Why didn’t you kill the son of a bitch’.”
What this memorandum shows is that fundamental causes of the 1993 rebellion appear to go back before Ms. Taylor was murdered, before the warden whom prisoners called “King Arthur” was appointed, before the humiliating and dehumanizing practices of Operation Shakedown were put in place.
The most devastating sentence in this devastating portrait of a snakepit behind bars is the following, written (to repeat) in 1989:
“[The prisoners] relayed fears and predictions of a major disturbance unlike any ever seen in Ohio prison history.”
What the Prisoners Themselves Said
Before, during, and after the eleven days, the prisoners in rebellion had no obvious way to tell their side of the story.
On the first full day of the L-block occupation, Monday, April 12, prisoner Anthony Lavelle improvised a public address system to broadcast the prisoners’ demands. The authorities thereupon turned off electric power in L-block. The prisoners responded by writing their demands on bedsheets and hanging the sheets out of windows in the occupied pods. (See Exhibits 3 and 4):
These lists of what the prisoners wanted appear to provide the best evidence of the causes of their rebellion as perceived by the prisoners.
The bedsheets presented the following demands:
∙ No petty harassment, walking in crowded groups behind yellow lines, forced to wear ill-fitting clothes, haircut standards applied at a whim of officers. Arbitrary rules created to appease an officer’s anger.
∙ Medical treatment that fits the medical guidelines, many people here are given aspirins for serious medical problems.
∙ Agree not to destroy personal property.
∙ No more forced integrated celling.
∙ Low security inmates should not be in SOCF.
∙ Ban the use of unsubstantiated criminal records, dismissed R.I.B. and court cases . . . at parole hearings.
∙ Reduce the overcrowding.
∙ Food preparation and variety needs to be seriously upgraded.
∙ [You are] locked in a cell with another inmate you can’t get along with.
∙ Education programs have been so diluted as to only accommodate those of a lesser security.
∙ Phone calls to be able to speak to their families other than 5 minutes at Christmas.
∙ Mail and visiting [policies] are arbitrarily applied.
∙ No rep[risals] against any inmates.
∙ No selection of supposed leaders!
∙ Medical personnel for the injured.
∙ Reasonable pay per work assignments.
∙ Abolish unit management, also security status ratings (Max 3 & 4).
∙ Complete overall review of records of all inmates for parole and transfer status.
∙ Inmates’ committee needed for cross review with staff overseers.
∙ Ideal programming, outside help from statewide groups.
∙ If peaceful ending [to the uprising], cameras present when officers enter.
In trials held after the negotiated surrender, prisoners involved in the uprising continued their efforts to explain why they had rebelled. As I describe in my book Lucasville (2nd edition at pages 156-159), the most determined effort to introduce such evidence came in the trial of the alleged leader of the disturbance, Hasan.
The judge at Hasan’s trial was a former Cincinnati prosecutor. The outrageous bias evident in his rulings included the following:
First: The judge permitted prosecutors to say in Opening Statement: “This riot was the idea of one man. This riot was planned by one man. This riot was organized by one man,” and in Closing Argument: “Whose riot was this? . . . Who called for this riot? . . . Ladies and gentlemen, first and foremost, without question this was his [Sanders’] riot.”
Yet when Warden Tate testified and defense counsel tried to question him about prison conditions that caused the riot, Judge Cartolano barred that line of questioning, stating: “This is a murder case. It has nothing to do with the riot, except that it happened in a prison at the time of the riot.”
Second: The defense team was anxious to show that an alternative means of testing for TB had already been used at Mansfield Correctional Institution and to this end called a prisoner named Frederick Crowder.
Judge Cartolano refused to let Mr. Crowder testify, opining: “This case is not a case concerning the riot. . . . The justification or the necessity or the wrongness of the riot is irrelevant. . . . I don’t care what they did at Mansfield concerning a TB testing. It is irrelevant.”
Finally, and most revealingly, Judge Cartolano refused to permit testimony during the sentencing phase of Hasan’s trial by an expert witness named Joseph R. Rowan. Mr. Rowan is an authority on prisons who has testified as an expert in 150 trials. He was prepared to testify that “it is highly likely this riot could have been prevented.” The judge forbade Mr. Rowan from testifying, declaring that “riots are not created by the prison. Riots are created by the inmates.”
To be sure, maximum security prisoners at SOCF in 1993 are not precisely comparable to the well-to-do gentlemen in wigs and knee britches who assembled at Carpenters Hall in summer 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain.
But there are similarities. Prisoners in L-block might well have said, as does the Declaration of Independence:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shown, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.
But, it was said in 1776, and could also have been said in 1993:
When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, . . . evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.