The Supreme Court of the United States dealt a setback this week to those who would tie the hands of state prison officials in controlling incorrigible convicts.
Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro argued successfully before the court that the state is giving inmates transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown ample notice of why they are being transferred and an opportunity to argue against being sent to the state's only "supermax" facility.
The court ruled unanimously in favor of the state, a victory after earlier setbacks at the hands of federal judges who said Ohio was sending too many prisoners to Youngstown.
The court, in an opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said that inmates are entitled to a process to avoid assignment to the facility, where prisoners are held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in 90-square-foot cells. The Ohio policy now in place passes constitutional muster.
Even though this case was not about whether a supermax prison rises to the level of cruel and unusual punishment that is prohibited by the Constitution, this opinion sent a strong message that making such an argument, at least before this court, would be difficult.
Kennedy's opinion noted that inmates "are deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact." Lights are always kept on in the cells, the opinion noted, and the treatment is more harsh than that generally given death row inmates.
Even so, all the court required was that states give prisoners an opportunity to know why they're being sent to a supermax and an opportunity to challenge the decision.
Not a pleasant place
To be sure, the supermax at Youngstown, or those in the 30 other states that have them, are not pleasant places. They are somewhere that no inmate should ever want to be. And that is the point. Every inmate has an opportunity to avoid ending up at the supermax. All they have to do is follow the rules.
(It is possible that Death Row inmates may find themselves in Youngstown as well, but that is an administrative decision, and corrections officials say that the conditions of incarceration of inmates facing the death penalty will not change if they are transferred here.)
It should be remembered that the creation of the supermax was one of the outgrowths of the 11-day riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville in 1993. That riot ended with the deaths of nine inmates and guard Robert Vallandingham, who was taken hostage on Easter Sunday when the riot erupted and strangled four days later.
After the riot, Ohio undertook some of the most expensive and ambitious prison reforms in the country. New prisons were built, hundreds of guards were hired and new programs inside and outside of prison aimed at rehabilitation and prevention were instituted. But at the same time, the state recognized that some prisoners are a threat to the lives and safety of other inmates and guards. Some prisoners simply will not follow the rules. For those prisoners, there is the supermax.
This has not been a good month for Republican elected officials in Ohio, given the trials and tribulations of Coingate. Atty. Gen. Petro has been criticized for not injecting his office sooner into the investment mess at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.
That makes this an especially sweet win for Petro, the first Ohio attorney general to personally argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States since William Saxbe.
And it's a good win for the state, as well, which needs someplace like the supermax prison for inmates who have no respect for the law, inside prison or out.