Supermax prisoner represents himself in court while on hunger strike and wins

by Ben Turk

The jury largely sided with hunger striking supermax prisoner Cornelius Harris in his criminal trial this week. Harris was facing nine felony charges stemming from fights with guards at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP). Harris has long maintained that these fights were actually initiated by guards who have targeted him for harassment and abuse. Earlier this week, a jury found largely in Mr. Harris’ favor.

Cornelius-Harris-headshot, Supermax prisoner represents himself in court while on hunger strike and wins, Abolition Now! Mr. Harris initiated his hunger strike on Jan. 4 and went to trial later in the month. He represented himself, and part way through the trial he was transferred to Franklin Medical Center (FMC) because of his deteriorating health due to the hunger strike. Mr. Harris says he has lost about 50 pounds and is experiencing sharp pains in his legs. Doctors report that he is close to suffering serious medical problems like organ failure because he has refused food for so long.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, Judge Maureen Sweeney ordered Mr. Harris to return to court to complete his trial, against the wishes of doctors at FMC. Harris was transferred back to OSP and appeared in court, ending the jury phase of trial on Friday, Feb. 8.

Mr. Harris was charged with two counts of attempted aggravated murder, one count of attempted murder, three counts of felonious assault and three charges of possession of a dangerous weapon while in detention. He was found not guilty of the attempted murder and felonious assault charges. Both attempted aggravated murder charges were reduced to felonious assault.

Mr. Harris represented himself, with no assistance from lawyers, while his health was seriously compromised by the hunger strike. He says he is confident that under different circumstances or with legal representation he would have also beaten the remaining charges.

As of Friday evening, Feb. 8, Mr. Harris is still on hunger strike. He was threatening to refuse water as well as food, a decision that would risk ending his life within 72 hours, but after the trial results and a meeting with the warden, he decided to drink water at least through the weekend. Mr. Harris is making two main demands. First, an end to this harassment from guards and, second, an improved procedure for security level review.

In June of 2012, Mr. Harris released a statement, reposted below, detailing this abuse. In the statement, he names correctional officers Timothy McVay, James Burns, Keith Hawn and Waylon Wine as abusers. Mr. Harris is concerned that these or other guards may escalate harassment and violence against him because of the results of the trial.

Mr. Harris has been incarcerated at OSP since being transferred from Southern Ohio Correctional Institution (SOCF) in Lucasville five and a half years ago. The incidents producing these criminal charges occurred in 2009 and 2010. Mr. Harris says he has not had any incident reports for the last three years but has been kept on Level 5 with severely restricted access to visitors, commissary and programming. Under these limitations, there is very little any Level 5 prisoners can do to demonstrate good behavior and reduce their security level.

In June of 2012, a death sentenced Level 5 prisoner at OSP named Jason Robb went on a nine day hunger strike, which ended with modifications to security review procedures and privileges for him and other death sentenced prisoners at OSP. These changes include limited congregate recreation, full contact visits and increased frequency of security reviews.

Mr. Harris is making two main demands. First, an end to this harassment from guards and, second, an improved procedure for security level review.

These changes allow the death sentenced prisoners at OSP to demonstrate ability to be housed on death row in Chillicothe. Mr. Harris is demanding that these changes also apply to him. Mr. Harris says Warden David Bobby is unwilling to meet these demands because he would have to apply the same changes to all Level 5 prisoners.

Prisoner advocates say that these step-down procedures should be applied to all Level 5 prisoners. Prisoners on Level 5 at OSP spend 23 hours a day alone in their small cells, often for years on end. They have no human contact other than guards. These conditions are common in U.S. supermax prisons, but they violate international human rights standards and are widely considered a form of torture.

Supporters are requesting that people call OSP Warden David Bobby on Monday, demanding that Mr. Harris be kept safe from retaliation and have his hunger strike demands met. Warden Bobby can be reached at (330) 743-0700, ext. 2006. People are also encouraged to contact Central Office and demand oversight and changes to the security review system for Level 5 prisoners. The number for Central Office is (614) 752-1159.

Write to Mr. Harris: Cornelius Harris, 525-945, OSP, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Rd, Youngstown OH 44505.

Suggested phone script for calling Warden Bobby, at (330) 743-0700, ext. 2006

Hello, I’m calling about an inmate named Cornelius Harris, number 525-945. It is my understanding that he has been on hunger strike for over 30 days.

I am calling to request that you meet with Mr. Harris as soon as possible and see to it that his very basic demands are met. They are: 1) an end to violence and harassment from guards, and 2) a reliable security level step-down procedure.

Thank you for taking my call and I trust that you understand your responsibility to meet these two legitimate requests, as it says something when an inmate under your supervision is willing to wager his life for his basic safety. Thank you again for taking my call and I will be keeping tabs on the outcome of this strike.

Ben Turk is a prison abolitionist in Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached at

Seeking immediate transfer to a safer prison

This is the statement posted June 15, 2012, to RedBird Prison Abolition. Cornelius Harris is incarcerated at Ohio State Penitentiary. He participated in the May Day hunger strike and then resumed the strike solo when it took too long for the warden to make good on their demands.

WARNING: This post contains graphic descriptions of violence.

by Cornelius Harris

My name is Cornelius Harris and I’m currently incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown, Ohio. Since my arrival at OSP from SOCF in 2007, I have encountered extreme harassment, destruction of my personal property and racially motivated attacks on my person by prison officials.

Cornelius-Harris, Supermax prisoner represents himself in court while on hunger strike and wins, Abolition Now! In particular, I have been involved in several incidents where correctional officers (COs) attempted to cause me bodily harm, but I managed to defend myself. However, every time I manage to defend myself or repel an attack on my life, I have been the only one charged with criminal offenses in an outside judicial proceeding.

The first incident occurred on Oct. 19, 2008, when CO (Correctional Officer) Timothy McVay – someone who has repeatedly harassed me – came to my cell and told me that today would be the day that he’d call my bluff. He further stated that he was going to put the handcuffs on me loose when he brings me out of my cell for recreation, and, if I didn’t come out of the handcuffs and fight him, I was a “bitch” and he would still split my head open and say I slipped the cuffs and attacked him without provocation.

Thus, it was only a matter of time before I would have to deal with this officer, so I told myself that if he follows through on his threat, I would come out of my handcuffs and fight him. This officer kept true to his words and, when I came out of my cell, he swung several punches at me and I responded by returning three punches which landed on his face.

In his attempt to sidestep my punches, his momentum made him fall down the stairs. Unbelievably, I was later indicted on attempted murder charges even though McVay’s injuries were not life threatening.

After this incident, the harassment from COs increased drastically and even supervisors made verbal threats on my life, saying the first chance they got they would kill me. No matter how many complaints I wrote to the appropriate prison authorities, officers and their immediate supervisors still destroyed my property, tampered with my food and made serious threats on my life.

I seriously feared for my life, knowing that these COs were more than capable of making good on their threats. It’s interesting to note that some of these same officers have been known for seriously assaulting prisoners and getting away with it because the prison authorities go out of their way to protect them.

The threats from COs became so serious that I refused to come out of my cell for anything: recreation, shower or medical care. I knew that if I did, I would be seriously hurt. This didn’t stop the threats, however, for COs would tell me that they plan to come into my cell at night (on third shift) and beat my brains out.

These threats were always followed by racial slurs – monkey, nigger, coon boy and other racial epithets. I knew that sooner or later these COs would come into my cell and try to harm me, so I found a way to acquire a homemade weapon for my protection.

I seriously feared for my life, knowing that these COs were more than capable of making good on their threats. It’s interesting to note that some of these same officers have been known for seriously assaulting prisoners and getting away with it because the prison authorities go out of their way to protect them.

On Dec. 30, 2008, I was awakened by an officer kicking on my cell door at 7:00 a.m. This was a non-movement day, so I didn’t know why I was being awakened. But when I looked up, CO Turpack yelled into my cell:

“Today is the day, you black piece of shit, that you get yours.”

I didn’t understand why this officer would wake me up and threaten me like that but, in any event, I got out of bed to look out my cell door to see what was going on. From my cell, C1-17, I could see the officers’ station, and when I looked in there, I saw at least 15 COs crowded around the desk where the block supervisor, Lt. Bright, was sitting. It appeared to me like the officers were going over a plan to do something to me. In fearing for my safety, I immediately prepared my cell for an attack.

Every officer who came past my cell made threats to me, so I knew that day would be the day that those COs would try something. I just didn’t know what or when, yet I just knew I had to be prepared.

At 1:35 COs James Burns and Keith Hawn came into my pod to handcuff my neighbor in cell 16. He asked the COs where he was going because he wasn’t expecting to go anywhere on a non-movement day. Either Burns or Hawn told him to shut the fuck up and cuff up like he was told, with which my neighbor complied.

As CO Hawn closed my neighbor’s “cuff port,” CO Burns got on his radio and called C-Block Control Center and requested for C1-17 to be opened. As my door began to open up, CO Burns grabbed his PR24 (night stick). I couldn’t believe he was actually calling for the door to be opened.

Before I could make sense of it all, my door was sliding open. I didn’t want to get trapped in my cell so I rushed out to meet CO Burns swinging his PR24 at my head. I put my left arm up to block the “night stick” while thrusting my homemade shank at his midsection.

As I tried to grab his swinging stick, my momentum took me into his body and we both fell to the floor. While on the floor, CO Burns tried to jam his PR24 into my neck as I continued to thrust the homemade shank at him.

I got off the floor and saw at least 30 COs gathered around the entrance to the pod door and waiting to get in. The pod door wouldn’t open because something got stuck in my cell door. I guess the way the security system works is if one door is opened in a pod, then another door cannot be opened until the first door is secured.

Their plan, from the beginning, was to open my door and while I was fighting with Burns and Hawn, the other 30 officers would come in and make good on their threats. They wasn’t expecting the pod door to malfunction. Needless to say, I was criminally charged for this.

The harassment from COs and the prison authorities became 10 times worse after this incident. Moreover, after I was removed from C1-17, the warden authorized for me to be placed in a pod by myself, mainly to isolate me in order to leave me vulnerable.

For the next several months, COs would openly tamper with my food and destroy my personal property without any worry of being disciplined. Specifically, there was this officer named Waylon Wine who would spit in my food tray every time he worked in C-block. He would also destroy my family pictures and legal mail.

I fear for my safety at OSP and am seeking an immediate transfer to a safer prison.

I wrote complaints on this officer every time he would harass me, but the prison authorities would never do anything. I felt the only way I was going to get this officer to stop harassing me was if I did something to him.

On July 18, 2009, CO Wine refused to give me recreation and told me that he had “something special for lunch for me.” I knew that he was talking about playing with my food.

That day was the day that I had had enough of these COs harassing me; therefore, I complained of chest pains so I could come out of my cell and tell the block supervisor about my problem. The block supervisor disregarded my complaint and did nothing about it, so when CO Wine came to the door to handcuff me, I thrust a homemade knife into his stomach. For this incident I was charged with attempted murder and having weapons while under detention.

On Nov. 27, 2009, while being escorted to recreation, COs Turpack, Horton and Wine slammed me on the floor and pummeled my face on the concrete. I was denied medical attention, placed in a cell and maced for three hours straight before the goon squad (cell extraction team) came into my cell and further assaulted me.

Their excuse for coming into my cell was that I said I was suicidal, which was a complete lie. I knew they would try to harm me and I had a homemade knife to protect myself. During the cell extraction an officer was cut on the arm, and I was charged with felonious assault.

Every day that I remain at this penitentiary I am at risk of either being seriously injured or catching more cases. Also, my property is at risk of being destroyed and my food of being harassed.

The prison authorities have agreed that I shouldn’t be housed at OSP, yet they won’t transfer me to another prison nor can they assure me that I won’t be harmed or harassed. They acknowledge my ongoing problems with staff, but they refuse to temporarily transfer me to another prison in Ohio until I am ultimately transferred out of state. Plain and simple, I fear for my safety at OSP and am seeking an immediate transfer to a safer prison.