National Experts Defend Practices At Ohio Prison

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Two national experts testified Thursday that Ohio's super-maximum security prison is a good lockup that is improving, despite allegations from inmates that their confinement is inhumane.

"This is still a relatively new facility," said James Austin, director of the George Washington University Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections. "It's still finding its way. But I think it is doing a good job, and will probably do better with experience."

The Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown was built in 1998 to house the state's most violent prisoners. It has about 335 inmates.

Chase Riveland, a consultant and former director of correction in Colorado, said the penitentiary is one of the top "supermax" prisons in the country.

The two testified for the state in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of supermax inmates. State attorneys then rested their case.

The ACLU charges that the conditions are more severe than under any other solitary confinement in the state, and that the procedures for transferring prisoners to the penitentiary are arbitrary.

The prisoners are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, and are shackled at all times when they are outside their cells. Any time an inmate leaves his cellblock he is placed in a cage and strip-searched.

The state has agreed to changes to address some health care and mental health issues raised in the lawsuit. The prison earlier promised to build an open air recreation area to replace the ventilated room that now serves as outdoor recreation for the inmates.

The remaining issues in the suit involve the system the state uses to determine which inmates should be sent to the supermax and when they can be released to lower security prisons.

Inmates complain that they have been approved for transfer by a classification review committee, only to have that decision unilaterally overturned by senior corrections officials.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin closed the trial briefly Thursday when a prison official testified about security arrangements, largely against gang activity and other threats among inmates. The judge agreed to close that portion of the trial to the public and news media so the security measures at the prison would not be compromised.

When the trial reopened, the state called several prison officials to testify about the procedure for classifying inmates, deciding who will be sent to the supermax prison, and who will return to a less restrictive prison.

Austin said the state has a "sound classification process" that probably will be improved by new guidelines the state plans to implement in March. He noted that the penitentiary took in 45 inmates in 2001 and released 121.

Riveland said he has been impressed with the prison's willingness to review and upgrade its procedures. "There has been a continuing modification in the way in the facility operates that seems not at all associated with the lawsuit," he said.

Gwin has allowed several weeks for further written legal arguments, but attorneys for both sides confirmed that they would meet to try to negotiate a settlement on the classification issue.

"I think the key issue in that will be whether there can be an outside monitor who will look at some of these cases and provide some protection for the people who are languishing in that prison for years," said Terry Gilbert, a lawyer for the prison inmates.

The state agreed Tuesday to allow outside medical professionals to make treatment decisions for inmates and agreed to establish an independent mental health panel to oversee inmate treatment.

Some inmates protested, saying in a handwritten objection that the agreement did nothing to help them right away and lacked specifics.

The motion was written by inmate John Perotti, who also was one of the inmates listed in the lawsuit. Twelve other inmates also signed the objection.

ACLU Ohio legal director Raymond Vasvari described Perotti, who was sentenced in Cleveland to 22 years to 60 years for theft, assault and other charges, as someone who "can be described as disgruntled."

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