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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Report back on the Hungerstrike at the OSP.

Jan 15th- Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, members of Columbus ABC attended the Solidarity Rally for Lucasville Uprising death sentenced prisoners.

The most important thing is what we learned at the reception after the rally... Staughten Lynd (lawyer and author of this book on the uprising) told us all about the hunger strike, which was a mixed success. Thursday morning (the 13th) the prisoners (Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Namir Abdul Mateen, Bomani Shakur and Jason Robb) met with Warden David Bobby and other prison officials. Under their security conditions, this means they were in four separate cages, unable to see each other, but able to hear each other and all see the officials. The Warden had accepted most of the demands without any negotiation or concession by the prisoners other than they start eating again. 

  • They are now allowed semi-contact visitation, starting Feb 1st. This means a small hole in the screen between them and their visitors, allowing them to hold hands or (with some acrobatics) even kiss family and loved ones. It's been 18 long years since they've had this kind of contact. 
  • They are now allowed the same access to legal databases as other death row prisoners. They also won training in how to use them (they've been in a long time, so the internet is very unfamiliar). This is key to developing their appeals. Up to this point they've only been able to request legal documents by name and full citation, which is pretty useless. Lynd stressed the importance of this privilege, that inmates are often able to find precedents and assistance for their cases that their lawyers overlook.
  • They demanded congregate recreation, meaning that they'd get to spend rec time together or with other inmates. This was not granted, but instead their rec time was increased, from 1 hour a day to 18 hours a week. Staughten said this was beneficial because some of this time could be spent in hallways near each other's cells. In other words, they will be allowed to stand 5 feet in front of another's cell door and have a shouted conversation through the door. There's no privacy, but at least there's communication, and a lot more time out of their cells. 
  • See PDF of the decision here.
So, these were the victories of the hunger strike, which the prisoners believe would have been unlikely without outside solidarity and support. Lynd and others seemed very pleased and surprised by the 1200 collected signatures and the turnout for the rally. 

But, everything was not victory. Bomani Shakur had an appeal trial date during the hunger strike and received a much more unfavorable reccomendation than his comrade Hasan had a few months prior. I can't remember all the details of how these legal proceedings work, so forgive me if this is innacurate or doesn't make sense. I guess these appeal cases are handled by a magistrate who reviews the case and makes a reccomendation to an appellate court or judge, who reviews the reccomendation and makes a decision. For these guys this all happens in Cincinnati, Hamilton county is one of the more racist federal districts around. 

I'm hoping to see public statements from Staughten or others about the details of what the differing reccomendations were. The gist of it is, Bomani's court decision during the hunger strike had a significantly shorter timeline for the execution than Hasan's pre-hunger strike court case, and the appellate court's decision was unusually short. Staughten kept saying "they rubber stamped it" meaning they didn't even consider or question the magistrate's recommendation. Everyone seems to feel that the state has decided Bomani is the leader of this group and is punnishing them for the hunger strike and hoping outside support dries up.

The speakers all insisted that this means we must keep up the fight and redirect our efforts to appeal processes and "stopping their execution for crimes they did not commit". This article by Denis O'Hearn has details about the history of the Lucasville Uprising, the innocence of the prisoners and the need to abolish the death penalty. We're looking to broaden critique and action against prison beyond innocence and the death penalty, so O'Hearn has much more articulate and impassioned things to say on those subjects than we do.

Now for the report back about the rally. Demonstrators met in the parking lot of an evangelical church neighboring the prison. By 1:00 a dozen or so cars had shown up, with lots of local people, people from Cleveland, us, and another group from Columbus, COPA (Something Ohio Prison Advocates). 

Alice Lynd, Brother Abdul from the Black Panthers, and Dwight Lamar (Bomani's Uncle) walked to the gates and delivered a letter with 1200 signatures into the prison. Meanwhile demonstrators mingled in the cold parking lot. It was cold and no press arrived so there was initially little enthusiasm for demonstrating or press-conferencing there. 

Someone did lead a march with banners and chanting around the small parking lot, in hopes that the prisoners could see us from the windows far away. There were, I'd say about 40-60 people. Most of the signs talked about torture, isolation or abolishing the death penalty. Our "Free all Prisoners" and "Abolish Slavery" signs felt welcome, sometimes cautiously. There were many people with cameras taking pictures and being their own media.

When we got to the nearest corner of the parking lot an older woman walked out from the group trudged into the foot-deep snow and shouted and sort of shadow-boxed at the prison. She then returned to the group and saying "I just had to act the fool a little bit, okay." We also felt unsatisfied with the parking lot demo and decided to follow her footpath into the snow, crossing toward the road into the prison. About half dozen other protesters joined us. The "act a fool" woman came as far as her bad knee would let her. 

We then marched up the road about a 100 yards, until a van full of guards blocked the path and told us we weren't allowed on state property and had to turn back. We nearly halved the distance between the church and demo and the prison, which I'm assuming allowed more prisoners to see us and read the signs. For what little that's worth.

Being almost halfway between the main group and the prison, there was a moment of not knowing who we were talking to, who we hoped would receive the message on our signs. The inmates? The guards? Or the reformist protesters, who welcomed us back to the group with cheers after the guards turned us away. I sure didn't feel like any cheer-worthy hero, walking away from guards who didn't even need to leave their van to turn us back. It was as unsatisfying as any political protest situation, not that I expected any different. Nevertheless, we were definitely glad to be there for the press conference to hear stories and details directly from people who've worked with these inmates for years.

The Lucasville 5 (the 4 at OSP + George Skatzes, who is held in Mansfield) will be the recipients of funds for our next Solidarity Showcase, on March 11th. More news about that coming soon. 

For now, you can write them letters of support, remind the warden that even if we're not marching toward their gates (and couldn't really do much if we were) we are still out here, and we are at least paying attention and will hold them to their promises.

Keith Lamar #317-117
PO Box 1436,
Youngstown OH 44501
(in your letter, you can refer to him by his preferred name, Bomani Shakur)

Jason Robb #308-919
PO Box 1436,
Youngstown OH 44501

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, #R 130-559
PO Box 1436,
Youngstown OH 44501

James Were, #173-245
PO Box 1436,
Youngstown OH 44501
(refer to him by his preferred name Namir Abdul Mateen)

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