The Lucasville prison revolt

February 3, 2012

In 1993, inmates at Ohio's Lucasville prison rose up in one of the longest prison rebellions in U.S. history. Rejecting the prison officials' divide-and-conquer strategy of trying to exploit racial tensions, the prisoners stood united, holding out for 11 days. But in the aftermath, the state singled out the leaders of the rebellion for repression--and railroaded five onto death row, despite evidence of their innocence.

Staughton Lynd was director of the Freedom Schools in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964 and was fired from his faculty position at Yale University after making a peace trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. As an activist and labor lawyer, he later aided the struggle of steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, and he co-edited, with Alice Lynd, the classic oral history book Rank and File: Personal Histories by Rank-and-File Organizers.

He also authored the book Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. In 2006, Lynd talked to Socialist Worker's Patrick Dyer about the story of the rebellion and the fight to win justice for the Lucasville Five.

COULD YOU talk about the causes of the Lucasville uprising?

IN THE late 1960s, the highest security prisoners in Ohio were housed in a penitentiary in Columbus, where there were a couple of serious riots. So the state decided it would create a new maximum-security prison for its most hardened tenants.

It chose Lucasville, Ohio, which was a bizarre decision from a social science point of view. It was perhaps understandable if your theory is that prisons should always be located in the remotest possible places. Lucasville is in southern Ohio, directly south of Columbus, and just north of the Ohio River.

It is in every respect a Southern, not a Northern, community--with a Southern and an Appalachian culture. So it was inevitable that when a big new prison was created, the guards would be predominantly both white and Appalachian in background. The prisoners there, between 1,500 and 2,000 of them, were, on the other hand, from African American neighborhoods in the inner cities of Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown and Akron.

The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville
The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville

So inevitably, quite apart from the harshness of the confinement, there was a cultural conflict. There were two groups of people who had difficulty understanding each other. And you had a lot of violence--a lot of violence.

The most publicized incident of violence, certainly a very distressing one, was in the summer of 1990, when an African American prisoner from Mississippi killed a young white teacher at the prison named Beverly Taylor. I've spoken with both the prisoner and Mrs. Taylor's husband.

I also had an extraordinary experience when my book was first published in 2004. I was speaking about it anywhere I could find, and we got as far as Camden, N.J., across from Philadelphia. I gave my talk, and a woman in the audience said her husband had been in Lucasville at that time, and that the accepted story of Mrs. Taylor's murder was mistaken and oversimplified.

So I asked her whether her husband might come to the lecture that I was to give that evening. She said she would ask him, and he did come. What he said is that he wasn't an eyewitness, but that the prisoners told a different story.

First of all, Mrs. Taylor dressed quite provocatively and may or may not have had some connection with bringing drugs into the institution. But in the incident that led to her death, Mr. Vaughn followed her into the women's room, and the guards--who, remember, were predominately white--immediately assumed that this Black prisoner was attempting to rape her.

She called out that, no, they were sitting on the floor talking, and she had the situation under control. The guards, however, began to break down the door, and at that point, Mrs. Taylor was heard to cry out, "No, no!"

The received story is that she was saying this to Mr. Vaughn as he attempted to assault her. But according to the elderly African American former prisoner who spoke to me, she was talking to the guards--pleading with them not to try to break down the door because it was terrifying Mr. Vaughn. He grabbed her, and with a weapon made out of the top of a tin can, cut her throat.

That incident, whatever its reality, led to a new regime of restrictions at the Lucasville prison. A new warden was appointed, a man named Arthur Tate. He immediately instituted what he called "Operation Shakedown."

Programs were abolished; lines were painted on the floor and prisoners on their way to chow marched lockstep between the lines; and cell assignments were made from above. Hitherto, if two prisoners had wanted to cell together, or had not wanted to cell together, the prison tended to accommodate that. But now cell assignments were dictated from above, and some prisoners feel that there was an intent to put Black nationalists and white racists in the same cells.

Prisoners also believe that Warden Tate may not have been averse to a small disturbance at this prison, because a few weeks before the uprising, he had asked the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) for permission to build more Supermax cells within Lucasville prison.

Another practice Warden Tate, like many other wardens, instituted was to encourage inmates to inform on one another. He even set up a special post office box for the convenience of prisoner informants who wanted to send him a message.

This, of course, led to tension, and not only between prisoners and correctional officers, but between prisoners and prisoners. Prisoners who performed jobs like "clerk" for a particular residential area that would give them some access to the personnel files of other prisoners were especially suspect.

That was more or less the underlying situation. One could go on and on about grievances. Prisoners at that prison at that time could make one five-minute telephone call per year. It was just a very tight place--the kind of place that was set to explode.

The triggering incident was that the warden decided to test for tuberculosis by injecting under the skin a substance that Muslim prisoners believed contained phenol, a form of alcohol. These prisoners said that their Sunni authorities in South Africa told them this wasn't permissible.

The prison countered by saying that they had talked to various Muslims in Ohio, who said this was okay. To which the African Muslim entity responded in a very dignified message, saying, "Look, among Christians, you have Baptists, Episcopalians, Jehovah's Witnesses, whatever--and you wouldn't permit any one denomination to say what was appropriate for another. Within the Muslim faith, as well, there are different religious tendencies, and what someone tells you in Ohio is not necessarily what we here in South Africa believe to be the correct interpretation of the Koran."

There was a kind of summit meeting between the warden and some of his associates, and leaders of the Muslim prisoners, who said that at other Ohio prisons, the testing for TB had been done in other ways. A deputy warden actually called in from vacation to tell the warden he thought it was a very bad idea to threaten the prisoners with forced injection in their cells, because if it was done in that way, what a given prisoner decided would be visible to all his colleagues in the same residential area.

But the warden let it be known that on April 12, the prison would be locked down. Every prisoner would be in his own cell, people would have bagged lunches instead of going to the chow hall, and the SWAT team and doctor would go from cell to cell, and inject, forcibly or otherwise, people who had thus far refused the injection.

Rather than permit that to occur, the Muslims decided to take over a portion of the prison--L block, or perhaps one pod or residential area within that block. According to the testimony of a Muslim who became a prosecution witness, the idea was to create just enough of a disturbance that the authorities in Columbus would get wind of it and might be motivated to overrule the warden as to how the testing for TB should be done.

But within moments of prisoners laying hands on the first corrections officer, the situation got out of control. One has to understand that these were prisoners who had been very, very tightly regulated and restricted in what they could do. Suddenly, they were free, and they vented their feelings on the officers, several of whom were taken hostage, and on prisoners they thought to be snitches.

That's how it began.

WHAT HAPPENED during the takeover? Isn't it true that prisoners overcame the racism and divisions sowed among them?

THE OCCUPATION of L block lasted 11 days. The first afternoon five snitches were killed, and all of those snitches were white.

As one can easily imagine, there was a good deal of tension, and a small group of Black and Muslim leaders approached George Skatzes, an older man who happened to belong to the Aryan Brotherhood. They said, "Look George, this is supposed to be against the administration, but it's turning into a race riot. Could you help us out?"

George celled in the part of the prison that had thus far not been involved, but when he was appealed to, he said, "Sure," and he went down to the gym, which was part of the occupied area, where the Blacks were all on one side and the whites were all on the other.

Looking at his fellow Aryans in the bleachers, he said, "Listen, this is against the administration. If the guards come in here, they're going to kill anything blue"--the prisoners all wore blue uniforms. He said, "So it doesn't really matter if we're Black or white." There was a Black man next to him who George says he didn't know. George put his arm around the man and said, "They'll kill me and this man, they don't care. So we've got to hang together; c'mon, let's hang together more and mix it up and not be so uptight."

That was successful, and the proof of it was when the authorities came in to L block after a negotiated surrender. The head investigator for the state of Ohio was asked what he found in the occupied cell block, and he said, "Well, there was some graffiti that was associated with Muslims or with Aryans, but mostly, what you saw was phrases like 'Black and White Together,' 'Convict Unity,' 'Convict Race.'"

I, of course, wasn't there, but I have come to know the five men sentenced to death after the disturbance. Three of them are Black, and two of them are white, and it's quite extraordinary the degree to which they maintained interracial unity 13 years after the rebellion.

CAN YOU talk about the struggle to support the Lucasville Five and, more generally, the struggle against the death penalty?

THE MOST successful strategy has been in Illinois, where it was a two-step strategy. First, a moratorium on executions, and then, commuting to life imprisonment the sentences of all the men on that state's death row.

Throughout the U.S., the number of prisoners sentenced to death is declining, year by year. And when you consider that we're in the midst of war propaganda and a violent cultural scene, I think that's an extraordinarily thing.

I think that the main reason for it is the DNA evidence that is showing that many, many people on death row in various states are, in fact, not guilty. So I'm inclined to think that a moratorium--at least to stop executing folks and set in motion a rational process of considering what a particular state does--is a desirable first step.

However, I do not support lifetime imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty, because many prisoners tell us these sentences take away hope, and that if this were the alternative, they would rather be executed.

As to how to get to the point where a given state is willing to consider a moratorium, and then the use of the death penalty, I think that depends on the state. We have quite a challenge here in Ohio, because two years ago, there were more people executed in Ohio than in any other state except Texas.

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