Future death row facilities examined
Reporters toured a cell block and took an elevator down to an outdoor area.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Ohio State Penitentiary is poised to accept 193 death row inmates and house each in a single cell complete with a TV and sliver of daylight.
Transfer of death row inmates from Mansfield Correctional Institution had been tentatively set for next month. A pending civil rights lawsuit has delayed inmates' arrival until the end of the year, Warden Marc C. Houk said Tuesday.
Ohio's only woman on death row, Donna Roberts of Trumbull County, will not transfer to OSP. Roberts will remain at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Executions by lethal injection will continue to take place at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
The OSP opened in April 1998 as the state's first supermax prison. It sits on 240 acres in a wooded section of the East Side, just off Coitsville-Hubbard Road, also known as state Route 616.
As of Tuesday, the facility had 269 inmates in its main building and 251 more in its low-security camp. Those in the main building fall into two categories of high security and are confined to their cells 23 hours a day.
The $157 daily cost per inmate could drop as the facility adds more prisoners, Houk said.
In response to the pending lawsuit, the warden said he's confident the prison can provide access to programs, out-of-cell hours and so forth to satisfy concerns.
The state Supreme Court agreed in March to hear an appeal from the state of Ohio, which disagreed with a February 2004 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The lower appellate court ruled that prisoners are entitled to hearings, with witnesses, before being assigned to the high-security prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, contending that inmates should be given the opportunity to prove they don't belong in the supermax. A federal district court in Akron ruled that standards for sending inmates to OSP were "arbitrary," and the state appealed.
The Supreme Court was asked to decide if placement at OSP is so significant a change from normal incarceration that a hearing is required. The high court also is being asked whether there needs to be a clearer process for a prisoner to leave the supermax based on good behavior.
In a 49-page brief filed with the Supreme Court, Ohio Solicitor Douglas Cole said procedures for placement already go far beyond what due process requires. He said prison officials need flexibility to use OSP "without unnecessary layers of court-imposed red tape."
The prison opened seven years ago with 500 beds to house the state's hard-core inmates after a deadly riot in 1993 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. The state announced in March that death row inmates would be moved from Mansfield to OSP this summer.
Lawyers for the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, in a 50-page brief filed with the Supreme Court, said incarceration at OSP is an "atypical and significant hardship." They said prisoners at the supermax are kept in solitary confinement under very strict conditions.
Reporters invited to visit OSP Tuesday entered one of the drab cells on D block on the fourth level and used an elevator to check out an outdoor recreation area two floors down.
Houk said the prison has four blocks, two of which will be used for death row inmates. Each block holds 126 inmates; each pod within a block houses eight inmates on each of its two levels, he said.
The cell's narrow window on D block allowed in daylight but not much of a view of the grounds. Each cell measures 92.2 square feet.
Each cell in the two-tiered pod has a stainless steel toilet, nonglass mirror, shelves, desk and mattress for the stationary bed.
A small black and white TV is affixed on a wall bracket. Houk said inmates who can afford a color TV may have one, once the model is approved by the prison.
Houk said programming, "you can call it Ohio State Penitentiary TV," includes education programs, religious and recovery services. Local stations -- ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS -- are available but no cable.
Inmates are permitted to have entertainment such as CDs, Houk said. They can also order a wide variety of items from the commissary.
At the center of each pod is an all-purpose day room with TV and phone. A label on the phone warns in English and Spanish that calls may be monitored and recorded.
Prisoners can play handball in the day room, and there's a table for games. Eight prisoners are permitted in the day room at a time, generally for one hour each day.
The 1,100-square-foot recreation area, meanwhile, is really a concrete room with 16-foot walls and an open-air grate for a ceiling. Outdoor equipment includes a sit-up bar and basketball hoop.
Houk said eight inmates -- two at a time without a guard -- would use the elevator to descend to the recreation area. Inmates choose one hour of outdoor or indoor recreation and there's the possibility they can have both, the warden said.
Houk acknowledged that some of the prison's inmates choose not to leave their cells. As with other lockups, the prison permits family, friend and attorney visits.
The supermax prison is air conditioned -- "tempered air," as Keith Fletcher, public information officer, described it. Artificial cool air is necessary because cell windows don't open, he said.