Federal Judge Says Ohio "Supermax" Prison Violates Constitutional Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
February 26, 2002 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Ohio
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Federal Judge Says Ohio “Supermax” Prison Violates Constitutional Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CLEVELAND– A federal district judge ruled today that brutal conditions at an Ohio Supermax prison “impose an atypical and significant hardship” on prisoners and that their placement in the facility has “great potential for error” in violation of their rights.

“”Today’s ruling will have far-reaching effects on future prison litigation, especially cases involving Supermax facilities,” said Ray Vasvari, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which filed the lawsuit with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York in January 2001. “The court today recognized that while the Supermax was designed to house the worst of the worst offenders, it has failed miserably in that goal.””

The ruling is also significant because it is the first time a court has agreed that conditions for an entire group of prisoners meet the Supreme Court’s tough standard of “atypical and significant’ hardship” that allows a case to be heard. In the past, only individual prisoners had been able to meet this extremely tough standard.

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.

The ACLU and CCR charged in their lawsuit that incarceration at the Supermax constitutes an unwarranted increase in the level of punishment and that the rules for transferring prisoners into and out of the facility are essentially arbitrary, allowing for frequent and widespread abuse by prison officials.

In his ruling today, U. S. District Judge James S. Gwin agreed, saying that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections’ procedure for selecting and retaining inmates under high maximum classification at the Supermax has “”great potential for error.””

The impact that this type of classification decision has on inmates is immense, according to Staughton Lynd, an ACLU volunteer attorney who has been involved in prisoners’ rights issues for many years. Under Ohio law, prisoners cannot be considered for parole while they are classified as “”high-maximum security.”” As a result, they can remain incarcerated for up to eight years beyond a parole board’s original recommendation.

“The importance of today’s decision cannot be overstated,”” Lynd said. “”It will significantly affect the lives of the over 300 men incarcerated at the Supermax facility in Youngstown.””

A year of litigation and intense negotiations have already produced substantial changes at the facility. In late 2001, for example Judge Gwin issued an order temporarily barring the incarceration of seriously mentally ill inmates there. And in January 2002, less than a week after a courtroom trial opened, prison officials agreed to work with the ACLU and CCR to remedy the brutal conditions at the Supermax. A settlement on the issues regarding mental and physical health care, use of restraints and outdoor recreation was signed on January 8, 2002.

Today’s ruling addressed the remaining issues in the case. The judge is scheduled to review a proposed settlement next month.

The case is Austin et al. v. Wilkinson et al., filed in the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division. ACLU attorneys in the case are legal director Vasvari, staff counsel Jillian Davis, Staughton and Alice Lynd, who are of counsel, and Michael Benza, volunteer attorney. CCR attorneys are Bill Goodman, legal director, Jules Lobel, cooperating attorney, and Terry Gilbert, cooperating attorney.

Sign up to be the first to hear about how to take action.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release