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YOUNGSTOWN Inmates watch trial statements



Published: Tue, January 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



One issue involves the circumstances of inmates' being moved to lower-security prisons.

STAFF/WIRE REPORT

YOUNGSTOWN -- Prisoners watched silently from isolation cells at the state supermax prison on the East Side on Monday at the start of a trial that challenges the prison's concept.

U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin had opening statements held at the Ohio State Penitentiary so inmates could watch.

About a dozen inmates watched through food slots of isolation cells in an unused part of the prison. A makeshift courtroom was arranged in the center of the cellblock. Attorneys sat at folding tables covered in green plastic tablecloths.

It was the first time a trial was held at the prison, which houses the state's toughest inmates, said prisons spokeswoman Melody Lewis. The trial moved later Monday to Judge Gwin's courtroom in Akron.

Basis of lawsuit: The suit challenges the concept of the prison, where inmates are locked in their cells 23 hours a day and shackled and strip-searched each time they come and go.

A coalition of lawyers and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City, sued on inmates' behalf.

The lawsuit, filed a year ago, asks that prison conditions be ruled unconstitutional and that the state be ordered to change its treatment of prisoners. It calls the conditions inhumane.

The trial is expected to last about a week.

The center's attorney, Jules Lobel, said during opening statements that the prison's conditions are unduly harsh and that the length of the inmates' stay is arbitrarily decided by the prison system.

Lobel noted that a prison review board had recommended 157 inmates be released from the prison and sent to a lower-security facility but only 71 were.

Inmate's testimony: Inmate Jason Robb testified that a prison review board twice recommended he be transferred from the Youngstown prison to death row at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. But he said that decision was overturned by senior state corrections officials.

"My past record will never change, and my present behavior is what counts," the handcuffed and shackled Robb said in the Akron courtroom.

Mark Landes of the Ohio attorney general's office said Robb is an example of why some inmates should not be released to lower-security prisons, despite their records of good behavior at the supermax prison.

Robb has a record of violence at other prisons, he said, including the killing of a corrections officer during a prison riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville in 1993.

Lobel also said the supermax prison is the only prison in the state where inmates don't have access to an outdoor recreation area.

The prison's recreation areas are two glass-enclosed rooms about 10 feet by 10 feet with a chin-up bar. One of the rooms has a fresh air vent, which qualifies it as being outdoors.

The prison has agreed to build an outdoor recreation area in the next year.

State's view: "We have gone to great pains to make the living conditions humane," said Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "It's certainly not too harsh in our estimation. We don't want to have any of our staff killed."

Landes pointed out that since the prison was built in 1998, it has housed 661 inmates, of which 326 were sent back to maximum-security prisons.

He said the conditions of the prison are equivalent to solitary confinement at other prisons or to other punishments handed out by prison wardens. He also said the prison has objective procedures for reviewing the incarceration of prisoners and for rewarding good behavior with release to a lower-security procedure.

Landes acknowledged that a review committee may conclude that a prisoner at the supermax deserves to be transferred on the basis of good behavior, only to have the warden overrule the decision.

"It's a difference of opinion, of professional judgment" as to whether the prisoner can be trusted in a lower-security facility, he said.




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