By Denis O’Hearn
Why would anyone want to go on death row?
A federal judge from Ohio once asked that question. To be specific, he asked, “Why would anyone rather be on death row than at Ohio State Penitentiary?”
I’ve been asking myself that question since I began visiting OSP Youngstown a few years ago.
Now, the death-sentenced prisoners I visit are so desperate that they are going on hunger strike, essentially for the right to be on death row. The four hunger strikers participated in the 1993 prison rebellion in Lucasville and at least some of them saved lives by acting as negotiators with the authorities. In return, they were deemed to be prison leaders and received the death penalty for murders committed during the uprising. The evidence against them was largely testimonies of other prisoners who actually committed the murders.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether these men were guilty or, if so, whether they deserve to be executed. The question at hand is, why were they sentenced to death, yet the state of Ohio refuses to put them on death row?
The fact is that there are worse places than death row. Let me explain.
After Lucasville, the state of Ohio decided that a maximum security prison was not secure enough. They built a supermax prison, OSP Youngstown. Once they built it, they had to fill it. Today, a hundred prisoners there are kept in 23-hour lockup in a hermetically sealed environment wherein they have almost no direct contact with other living beings — human, animal, or plant. Even “outdoor” recreation is in a small enclosure with a concrete floor and walls so high that a person can see out only through the grilled ceiling overhead.
The system keeps its worst retribution for the four hunger-striking men for whom it built OSP: Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Keith Lamar, Namir Abdul Mateen, and Jason Robb. They are a strange group of prisoners. Two are Sunni Muslim. One an unaffiliated African-American. The fourth an Aryan Brother. Contrary to what we might expect, they are friends and even “best friends”. This is not supposed to happen between an Aryan Brother and an Afro-American.
Perhaps this is why prison authorities have written to them that, despite a cursory annual review of their cases, “You were admitted to OSP in May of 1998. We are of the opinion that your placement offense is so severe that you should remain at the OSP permanently or for many years regardless of your behavior while confined at the OSP.”
The lack of a reasonable review violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. It also violates the explicit instruction of the Supreme Court of the United States in Austin v. Wilkinson. Moreover, keeping men in supermax isolation for long periods clearly violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
What does this mean in real terms?
Keith Lamar, who I call by his preferred name Bomani Shakur, may be closer to me than any man on earth. I tell him things about me that no one else knows. He does the same with me. I visit him each month and when we are allowed I spend five hours with him Saturday and another five on Sunday. I love him like a brother. He is a brother to me.
Yet I have never touched Bomani, much less hugged him. One day I asked him how long it had been since he touched a tree. After he stopped laughing, he turned serious. It had been over 15 years.
Bomani told me a story about “outside exercise.” One day a leaf fell through the grille to the concrete floor below. He picked it up, hid it, and took it back to his cell. There he enjoyed this dying bit of life until a guard took it away.
Sealing men off from contact with nature, including other humans, is the cruelest punishment I can imagine.
So what would these men have if they were on death row?
On my visits to OSP I have to shout through a wall of bullet-proof glass at a man who is shackled in a small visiting cubicle. A few feet away, a man from death row sits in a booth with a small hole cut from the glass. He can hold his mother’s hand. With a little effort, despite his shackles, he can kiss a niece or grandchild. He does not have to shout to hold a conversation.
This may not move you but consider why these men are in prison to begin with. Last year, I taught a course where my students corresponded with supermax prisoners across the US. The men wrote autobiographies. None of them pleaded innocence or for pardon; they regretted what they had done. They had one thing in common: childhoods where they were deprived of love and human contact.
If deprivation of human contact is what led these men into lives where they committed horrific deeds, why do we punish them by intensifying that deprivation? Why not give them the one thing that could have brought them from the brink in the first place: a little bit of loving, human contact? A clasp of a loving hand from time to time. The chance to show that they can be better men than they were. None of us can be hurt by this small mercy. And knowing some of these men and their capacity to contribute to society, even if their society is just a prison, we may have a lot to gain.
Denis O’Hearn is Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University — SUNY. His book, “Nothing But an Unfinished Song,” is a biography of the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands.