Three convicted in Ohio prison riot plan hunger strike

Julie Carr Smyth

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Three of five Ohio inmates sentenced to death for an historic prison riot plan a hunger strike starting on the uprising’s 20th anniversary Thursday to protest the state’s refusal to allow them sit-down media interviews on their cases.

The state has had two decades to tell its side of the story and the inmates known as the Lucasville Five should have their chance, Siddique Abdullah Hasan said in an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“We have been suffering very torturous conditions for two decades,” said Hasan, formerly Carlos Sanders. “We have never been given the opportunity completely to speak about our cases, to speak to the media — because the media has an enormous amount of power. They can get our message out to the court of public opinion.”

Twelve staff members were taken hostage on April 11, 1993, Easter Sunday, when inmates overtook the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. Hasan was convicted for helping plan the murder of Corrections Officer Robert Vallandingham, among 10 who died during the 11-day uprising, the longest deadly prison riot in U.S. history. Hasan denies he was involved in planning or carrying out the killing.

Hasan, Keith LaMar and Jason Robb, all sentenced to death after the uprising, will take their last meals Wednesday evening ahead of their protest at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Hasan said. Also participating will be Gregory Curry, a participant in the rebellion sentenced to life in prison.

James Were, another of the Lucasville Five, is diabetic and will not take part. The fifth man sentenced to death after the riot, George Skatzes, is at a different prison in Chillicothe.

Hunger strikes have been periodic among high-security prisoners in recent years. Some 12,000 prisoners in California went without food for about three weeks twice in 2011, winning a new process for leaving indefinite solitary confinement.

Hasan, LaMar and Robb staged a short hunger protest in 2011 that resulted in access to full contact visits with their families. Hour-long phone calls, like Wednesday’s with the AP, were also permitted after that protest, Hasan said. LaMar used that access to speak about the riot to a recent gathering at Youngstown State University.

Factors considered when deciding whether an inmate can be interviewed include the nature of the case, his behavior while in prison, the safety of the facility and potential impact on staff and victims, said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The department denied an AP request for sit-down interviews ahead of Thursday’s anniversary.

Among the department’s concerns have been that the five would bring up prison conditions such as overcrowding that led to the 1993 riot or try to elicit sympathy for being held in super-maximum security, Hasan said.

“I’m not concerned about overcrowdedness. It doesn’t affect me because I’m always going to be isolated,” Hasan said. “They said they didn’t want us to talk about indefinite confinement in a super-max prison. I could care less about that. I’m not trying to make prison a paradise for myself. I’m trying to get the hell out of prison.”

Hasan, now 50, was 10 months from his parole hearing at the time of the riot.

He was among Muslim inmates in Lucasville who objected on religious grounds to a mandatory test for tuberculosis containing phenol alcohol. Hasan said they never envisioned their protest would reach such proportions.

“We didn’t ever have an intention to have a full-scale rebellion, just barricade ourselves inside a pod, get the attention of Central Office to hope that we could resolve the situation amicably,” he said.

Instead, the violent uprising involving more than 450 inmates ultimately prompted then-Gov. George Voinovich to call in the National Guard. Vallandingham was murdered on the fourth day of the standoff after inmates’ threats they would kill a hostage if certain demands weren’t met.

Hasan said he became involved in negotiations after Vallandingham’s death, in his role as prayer leader for the Muslim inmates, after several representatives were appointed and talks faltered.

In contradiction to accounts provided by the state, Hasan claims that inmates never got together and decided a guard should be murdered.

“Prior to the guard’s murder, there was not any discussion for a guard to be killed. There was never a vote,” he said. “The prosecutor sold that line to the jury and they swallowed the hook, the line and the sink.”

He said the Lucasville Five are uniquely classified to deny them in-person media interviews and other privileges that fellow death row inmates earn through good behavior.