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No one should want to come to Youngstown's supermax



Published: Fri, January 11, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Testimony at this week's supermax prison trial in U.S. District Court in Akron should be mandatory reading for every prisoner in the Ohio penitentiary system.

Inmates testified that they hadn't gotten treatment at the supermax that they received at other prisons. One said he wasn't allowed to wear orthopedic shoes that he had worn at other prisons. Another said conditions at the supermax were far worse than any other solitary confinement arrangement in the state.

"The stress is 10 times worse than any place I've ever been," said inmate Darryl Heard.

That's something every prisoner in Ohio should hear, because the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown is the last place any prisoner in Ohio should want to come to.

Conditions: It is a cold, hard place in which to do time. Prisoners are confined to Spartan cells 23 hours a day. They don't leave their cells without being strip searched. When they are out of their cells they are shackled, whether they're in the recreation area or getting a visit. They have a small black and white television set with limited programming.

Prisoners sleep on a thin mattress on a concrete shelf. There is one tiny sealed window. There are no pictures on the wall. And the only way back into the general prison population is through a series of steps based on good behavior.

And some do get out. The supermax took in 45 inmates in 2001 and released 121. But there are still about 335 there. The state says that only its most disruptive prisoners are sent to OSP and that all of them have disciplinary records that include fighting, assaulting prisoners or guards and gang activity. Some have killed guards or other prisoners.

Basis of suit: The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and claims that the conditions at the prison are unnecessarily harsh, and that the state uses an arbitrary process for deciding which inmates are kept there. It seeks to have the prison declared unconstitutional and wants the federal court to order the state to cease operating it or to downgrade its security level.

We hope the federal court disagrees.

Prisoners who choose to break prison rules must find themselves in ever more restrictive environments, for purposes of punishment, deterrence and security.

The lawsuit has pointed out some shortcomings at OSP, which is not surprising since it had been open for less than two years when the suit was filed. The state has agreed to some changes, especially in the matter of medical treatment for inmates.

But every prison system as large as Ohio's will have some hard cases who refuse to live by the rules. For them, there is the supermax. They don't have to like it. They're not supposed to.




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