Ryan Scott Ottney
PDT Staff Writer
A long-standing ban on allowing media interviews by prison inmates convicted for their role in Ohio’s deadly 1993 prison riot is unconstitutional, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio on behalf of four journalists and the five inmates.
The prison system’s policy is inconsistent, especially when the backgrounds of other high-security inmates granted access to reporters is reviewed, the lawsuit said. Among those are several death row inmates, including Frank Spisak, a neo-Nazi convicted of killing three people at Cleveland State University in 1982 and executed in 2011.
“The job of the media is to explore important issues from all sides,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman. “When government officials arbitrarily stifle this process because they are uncomfortable with the conversation, they are preventing public discourse on critical issues, inhibiting a free press, and censoring prisoners from telling their stories to the media.”
The only plausible reason for granting interviews to people like Spisak and denying access to Lucasville inmates “is the desire to stifle public discussion of the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising.”
The ratio of inmates to guards inside Ohio’s prisons has crept up again after a dip that followed the 11-day siege at Lucasville’s Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in 1993. Double-bunking inmates, a trigger in the uprising that left one corrections officer and nine inmates dead, is back in use at a prison in Toledo. Serious assaults requiring outside medical attention have jumped from an average of three per year to 16 last year, and gang membership, while down slightly, stands at 16 percent.
JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the Associated Press the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.
“Prison officials are not denying these interview requests based on security,” said Hardiman. “They are denying them based on what they think the inmates are going to say.”
The lawsuit cites several examples of reporters being denied interviews over the years with Lucasville riot inmates, including Siddique Abdullah Hasan, who received the death sentence for the killing of guard Robert Vallandingham.
In May, Hasan, also known as Carlos Sanders, ended a nearly monthlong hunger strike in an unsuccessful protest of the interview bans, which included the denial of a request by The Associated Press. He was one of several Lucasville riot inmates who participated in the hunger strike.
Under recent policy changes, Hasan and other inmates may make telephone calls of up to an hour, including to reporters. But hunger strikers argued that in-person meetings captured on video are a more powerful way to tell their side of the story.
“Decisions regarding inmate interview requests are based on a number of different screening criteria, including the overall safe operation of the facility and potential impact on crime victims,” a warden’s assistant at Ohio’s death row in Chillicothe wrote a San Francisco journalist in February denying a request to interview Lucasville inmate George Skatzes.
In many cases, the state says its most closely supervised inmates aren’t eligible for interviews, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Skatzes is not one of its most closely supervised inmates, but still can’t be interviewed.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Noelle Hanrahan, director and producer of Prison Radio in Philadelphia; Christopher Hedges, an author and former New York Times reporter in Princeton, N.J.; Derrick Jones, a former Bowling Green State University professor now at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo.; and James Ridgeway, co-editor of a website, “Solitary Watch” in Washington, D.C. The lawsuit was also brought on behalf of death row inmates Hassan, Skatzes, Keith Lamar and Jason Robb, and inmate Gregory Curry, who is serving a life sentence for the Lucasville riots.
Ryan Scott Ottney can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 287, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Ryan on Twitter @PDTwriter. The Associated Press contributed to this story.