by Denis O’Hearn
Special to The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio
A federal judge from Ohio once asked that question. To be specific, he asked, “Why would anyone rather be on death row than at Ohio State Penitentiary?”
I’ve been asking myself that question since I began visiting OSP Youngstown a few years ago.
Now, the death-sentenced prisoners I visit are so desperate that they are going on hunger strike, essentially for the right to be on death row. The four hunger strikers participated in the 1993 prison rebellion in Lucasville and at least some of them saved lives by acting as negotiators with the authorities.
In return, they were deemed to be prison leaders and received the death penalty for murders committed during the uprising. The evidence against them was largely testimonies of other prisoners who actually committed the murders.
The fact is that there are worse places than death row. Let me explain.
After Lucasville, the state of Ohio decided that a maximum security prison was not secure enough. They built a supermax prison, OSP Youngstown. Once they built it, they had to fill it. Today, a hundred prisoners there are kept in 23-hour lockup in a hermetically sealed environment wherein they have almost no direct contact with other living beings – human, animal or plant. Even “outdoor” recreation is in a small enclosure with a concrete floor and walls so high that a person can see out only through the grilled ceiling overhead.
Perhaps this is why prison authorities have written to them that, despite a cursory annual review of their cases: “You were admitted to OSP in May of 1998. We are of the opinion that your placement offense is so severe that you should remain at the OSP permanently or for many years regardless of your behavior while confined at the OSP.”
The lack of a reasonable review violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It also violates the explicit instruction of the Supreme Court of the United States in Austin v. Wilkinson. Moreover, keeping men in supermax isolation for long periods clearly violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
What does this mean in real terms?
Yet I have never touched Bomani, much less hugged him. One day I asked him how long it had been since he touched a tree. After he stopped laughing, he turned serious. It had been over 15 years.
Bomani told me a story about “outside exercise.” One day a leaf fell through the grille to the concrete floor below. He picked it up, hid it and took it back to his cell. There he enjoyed this dying bit of life until a guard took it away.
Sealing men off from contact with nature, including other humans, is the cruelest punishment I can imagine.
So what would these men have if they were on death row?
This may not move you, but consider why these men are in prison to begin with. Last year, I taught a course where my students corresponded with supermax prisoners across the U.S. The men wrote autobiographies. None of them pleaded innocence or for pardon; they regretted what they had done. They had one thing in common: childhoods where they were deprived of love and human contact.
If deprivation of human contact is what led these men into lives where they committed horrific deeds, why do we punish them by intensifying that deprivation? Why not give them the one thing that could have brought them from the brink in the first place: a little bit of loving, human contact? A clasp of a loving hand from time to time. The chance to show that they can be better men than they were.
None of us can be hurt by this small mercy. And knowing some of these men and their capacity to contribute to society, even if their society is just a prison, we may have a lot to gain.
Jan. 6 update
by Denis O’Hearn
Just back from the prison visiting Jason Robb. Saw Bomani Shakur yesterday. Spent five hours with each and the conversation never flagged. They are both in good spirits and very lifted by the public response to their action.
They have posted signs on their doors: “Hunger Strike: No Trays.” Last night the doctor came by and weighed Bomani and took a blood sample since he’d refused nine meals and was officially considered to be on hunger strike. He’s 205 pounds. Jason got the doctor to weigh him a couple of days ago and he is 216 pounds. He becomes “official” tomorrow morning.
I’ll be sharing more of what was said with both guys later but am back on the long road home to New York. Soon we’ll post some addresses to write them and keep up their spirits, and also some addresses of important officials who we should also write to “keep up their spirits.” Jason thinks flooding these guys with emails, phone calls and faxes is the most important thing we can do right now.
Denis O’Hearn is professor of sociology at Binghamton University SUNY. His book, “Nothing But an Unfinished Song,” is a biography of the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands. This story first appeared in The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio. Contact Denis O’Hearn through Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1533483976&v=wall.