Agreement Reached Over Medical Treatment Of Inmates

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - State prison officials agreed Tuesday to have an independent panel take over the medical treatment of prisoners at Ohio's super-maximum security prison after inmates alleged they were denied proper care.

The prisoners' claims are part of a lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, alleging conditions at the Ohio State Penitentiary are inhumane. Inmates are kept in cells for 23 hours a day, aren't allowed to shield their eyes from fluorescent lights and are shackled and strip-searched each time they leave the cells, according to the lawsuit.

Both attorneys for the state and the ACLU signed the medical agreement, said Staughton Lynd, an attorney for the prisoners. They submitted the agreement Tuesday afternoon to U.S. District Judge James Gwin. The judge did not comment on the settlement.

Meanwhile, Gwin is continuing to hear the lawsuit that demands the state change its treatment of inmates at the Youngstown prison, called the "supermax."

Prisoners have claimed they were denied treatment for asthma, gum disease and heart problems at the prison, which houses about 450 of the state's toughest prisoners.

The warden, Todd Ishee, and state attorneys would not comment on the health care agreement. Ishee said he has been trying to make improvements at the prison, including the planned construction of an outdoor recreation facility.

Under the terms of the agreement, a panel of independent medical experts would determine how inmates should be treated, said ACLU attorney Raymond Vasvari.

In addition, an independent mental health review committee would determine whether a prisoner is mentally ill. Prison officials have previously agreed that mentally ill inmates will no longer be housed at the supermax.

In briefs and testimony, inmates claimed they were denied treatment at the supermax that they had gotten at other prisons.

Inmate Charles Austin testified Tuesday that he was not allowed to wear orthopedic shoes that he had worn at other prisons.

Another inmate, Darryl Heard, testified that 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 Heard, who was handcuffed and shackled and surrounded by guards during his testimony in U.S. District Court.

Mark Landes, an attorney with the Ohio attorney general's office, said in opening statements Monday that conditions of the prison are equivalent to solitary confinement at other prisons or to other punishments handed out by prison wardens.

The opening statements were held in a makeshift courtroom in an unused cellblock at the prison so inmates could watch the proceedings. The trial then was moved to Gwin's courtroom in Akron.

Jules Lobel, an attorney for New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, told the judge that the prison system arbitrarily decides the length of inmates' stay.

The state has argued that some prisoners should not be released to lower-security prisons, despite their records of good behavior at the supermax prison. The state says many of the prisoners have clean behavior records only because 24-hour supervision prevents them from committing new crimes.

Inmate Michael Benge testified Tuesday that prison officials won't let him transfer to a lower security prison because of his alleged participation in a 1997 riot at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. He said it doesn't matter to prison officials that he has taken drug treatment and GED classes while at the supermax.

"It's useless for me to do these programs if they're not even considered" as a condition for transfer to another facility, he said.

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