Judge critical of supermaximum prison in ruling

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ohio's supermaximum prison for the state's worst inmates has had a public relations problem from the beginning and its reputation wasn't helped by a recent court ruling.

The decision by U.S. District Judge James Gwin last week involved a lawsuit trying to block the state from moving death row to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

Gwin rejected the contention of civil liberties advocates that the move would deny inmates' constitutional due process rights because a prior court ruling blocked inmates from being sent to the prison unless they prove to be a security risk.

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But Gwin also made it clear what he thinks of the prison, which is meant to house inmates with the worst behavior records while behind bars.

‘‘Opened in 1998, the OSP is an ill-conceived legislative remedy to a problem that did not exist,'' Gwin said.

The facility was built in the aftermath of the 1993 Lucasville riots in which a guard and nine inmates were killed.

‘‘The fault of this plan lies in the fact that the Lucasville riot was caused by overcrowding in the maximum security area, not by any lack of space in the high maximum security,'' Gwin said.

Even before it officially opened, lawmakers in the former steel town protested a proposal to include Youngstown in the prison's name, worried it would further sully the area's reputation.

Youngstown was a center of organized crime for decades and then suffered economically when thousands of steel jobs were lost in the late 1970s.

The New York City-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union sued Ohio in 2001, alleging the treatment of inmates at the prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and that inmates sometimes were transferred there without a hearing.

It cited 23-hour-a-day lockdown in 90-square-foot cells that had full metal doors instead of bars, and metal strips on the bottom and sides of the doors to prevent inmates from communicating with each other.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the lawsuit with a unanimous ruling that upheld new rules giving inmates a fair opportunity to fight transfers to super maximum-security prisons.

In the post-Lucasville era, the prison ‘‘was an easy sell to legislators who wanted to be tough on crime,'' said Sen. Robert Hagan, a Democrat running for Youngstown mayor.

The state wants to move death row to the Youngstown prison to save money. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction estimates it would save from $5 million to $6 million a year by eliminating 91 jobs at Mansfield.

The supermax was built to house 502 inmates but did not lay off employees even as the population fell to below 250 prisoners.

As a result, about 245 guards watch about 230 inmates, according to Gwin's rulings.

Gwin's remarks ‘‘echo exactly what we've all felt, that it's a horrible place, it's like building Devil's Island,'' said state public defender David Bodiker.

‘‘The government, whenever there is the ability to get money for a situation, irrespective of whether they believe the situation justifies it, they'll do it,'' he said.

The state, pleased with Gwin's decision, disagrees with the judge's side comments.

The prison ‘‘does have a role in the entire operations of our prisons department,'' said Jo Ellen Lyons, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Attorney General Jim Petro ‘‘does not agree with that assertion by the judge,'' said spokesman Bob Beasley. ‘‘He believes in its existence.''

Gwin is likely to have the final word, saying he'll watch closely to ensure the state treats death row inmates differently than high-security prisoners, as officials said they would.

The state's ‘‘earlier failures inspire caution in accepting future promises,'' Gwin said. He added that he would allow the move of death row, ‘‘albeit with an appropriate degree of skepticism.''

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is the statehouse correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.