Inmates Watch Prison Conditions Trial From Isolation Cells

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (AP) - At a trial on whether conditions at Ohio's only super-maximum security prison are inhumane, the state argued that one of the first inmates to testify is an example of why the harsh facility is needed.

Prisoners watched silently from the food slots of isolation cells as U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin held opening statements Monday in a makeshift courtroom in an unused cellblock at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Gwin took the step so inmates could watch the proceedings.

Attorneys sat at folding tables covered in green plastic tablecloths. The trial then moved to Akron, where testimony resumed Tuesday.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, asks that the state be ordered to change its treatment of inmates at the prison, which houses the toughest inmates in Ohio.

Jules Lobel, an attorney for New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said during opening statements that the prison system arbitrarily decides the length of inmates' stay. He said a prison review board had recommended 157 inmates be transferred to a lower-security facility, but 71 were moved.

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.

Conditions of the prison are equivalent to solitary confinement at other prisons or to other punishments handed out by prison wardens, Landes said.

It was the first time a trial was held at the prison, said prisons spokeswoman Melody Lewis.

The suit contends inmates are kept in cells for 23 hours a day, don't have access to an outdoor recreation area, aren't allowed to shield their eyes from fluorescent lights and are shackled and strip-searched each time they leave the cells.

The prison houses about 450 inmates. An additional 65 inmates are at a separate, minimum security camp on the same grounds.

"We have gone to great pains to make the living conditions humane," Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said outside the temporary prison courtroom. "It's certainly not too harsh in our estimation.

"The duration doesn't bother me either. Our mission is to maintain a safe and orderly prison system. This institution allows us to do that. We don't want to have any of our staff killed."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)