Judge Rules That Supermax Prison Violates Inmates' Rights

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Ohio must reform its system for sending inmates to the state's super-maximum security prison and how long they are kept there, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin, in a 57-page opinion issued late Monday, gave lawyers for Ohio and those representing inmates two weeks to file recommendations for how to revise the classification system at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

Gwin issued his ruling a month after both sides failed to negotiate that one remaining issue from a lawsuit filed by 30 prisoners.

In a January trial, lawyers for inmates at the supermax prison argued that conditions are inhumane. Inmates said they have been approved for transfer by a classification review committee, only to have that decision unilaterally overturned by senior corrections officials.

The state had argued that classification decisions always will require some subjective rulings by prison officials.

In his ruling, Gwin said Ohio "denied the plaintiffs due process in a number of ways."

Those include failing to provide inmates a chance to be heard before placing them in Ohio's most restrictive prison, inadequate reasons for keeping them there and not enabling inmates "to understand the reasoning and evidence uses to retain them" at the prison, Gwin said.

Gwin found that conditions at the prison "impose an atypical and significant hardship" on inmates and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction violated inmates' constitutional rights "by denying them due process in their placement and retention at OSP."

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

Supermax 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.

"We consider this a momentous victory," Jules Lobel, a lawyer for the inmates, said Tuesday.

"The implications are enormous beyond Ohio, because over the last decade there has seemed to be a skyrocketing of these supermax kind of prisons," he said.

The state had not decided whether to appeal the ruling, said Greg Trout, the DRC's chief counsel.

"There are facilities of this type in over 30 states around the country, and we believe it is inconsistent with the law and the facts to characterize this type of confinement as 'atypical,'" Trout said.

"We think the judge is wrong in imposing these additional requirements," he said. "The operation of this facility is not a science, it's an art that involves predicting human behavior."

The American Civil Liberties Union accused Ohio of creating conditions at the supermax prison that are more severe than solitary confinement at any other state prisons and that the procedures for transferring prisoners to the penitentiary are arbitrary.

During the trial, witness James Austin, director of the George Washington University Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections, 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.

The state, during the trial, has agreed to make changes satisfying health care and mental health issues that had also been raised in the lawsuit. The prison also promised to build an open air recreation area to replace the ventilated room that now serves as outdoor recreation for the inmates.

The state agreed 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.

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