Guest Post by Staughton Lynd
Staughton Lynd is a lawyer, historian, educator, author, and lifelong activist for peace and justice. For four decades, he and his wife, Alice Lynd, have worked on prisoners’ rights issues, especially in Ohio where they live. The Lynds were of counsel in a landmark 2001 class action suit, Austin v. Wilkinson, which challenged the constitutionality of conditions the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. Among Staughton Lynd’s many books is Lucasville, the story of one of the longest prison uprisings in U.S. history, which took place twenty years ago this week at the maximum security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
According to the publisher’s description: “More than 400 prisoners held L block for eleven days. Nine prisoners alleged to have been informants, or ‘snitches,’ and one hostage correctional officer, were murdered. There was a negotiated surrender. Thereafter, almost wholly on the basis of testimony by prisoner informants who received deals in exchange, five spokespersons or leaders were tried and sentenced to death, and more than a dozen others received long sentences. Lucasville examines the causes of the disturbance, what happened during the eleven days, and the fairness of the trials. Particular emphasis is placed on the inter-racial character of the action, as evidenced in the slogans that were found painted on walls after the surrender: ‘Black and White Together,’ ‘Convict Unity,’ and ‘Convict Race.’ Lynd has stayed in touch with the Lucasville Five, and in this essay he champions their right to tell their own stories–a right that has been challenged by the state.
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What is it like to be behind bars and try to tell your story to the world outside?
The old poem doesn’t see a problem, because: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage/Minds peaceable and quiet/Take them for a heritage.”
King Lear was almost anxious to go behind prison walls with his daughter Cordelia.
However, few who go behind stone walls and spend their days behind bars attain the peace of mind to “take them for a heritage.” For that matter, few so confined are able to share that solitude with a favorite daughter.
More common, and more appropriate, is the attitude of the imprisoned 19th-century German workers who composed the song “Die Gedanken sind frei” (thoughts are free). No matter where they put us, sang the embattled workers, our thoughts will burst our chains and cause the prison walls to crumble in two.
Preserving One’s Humanity
There are two arguments for free communication by prisoners, especially by those in solitary confinement. The first and no doubt the most important is, thereby one seeks to preserve one’s humanity.
My wife Alice and I first came into contact with prisoners confined alone when the State of Ohio decided to build its first supermaximum security prison in Youngstown, near where we live. The Mayor pronounced the event a “home run.”
While the new prison was still under construction, members of the Workers’ Solidarity Club and Youngstown Peace Council organized a community forum at a small church near the entrance to the facility. Alice sought contact with persons who had experienced solitary confinement elsewhere in Ohio. One man wrote us that what was done to him was so much more harmful than anything he had committed that he had lost his ability to forgive.
At the same forum we met the sister of George Skatzes (pronounced “skates”), one of the five men sentenced to death after the 11-day uprising in April 1993 at the maximum security prison in Lucasville, Ohio.
Alice and I made the first visit to a prisoner in the Youngstown supermax when we visited George in June 1998. He was locked on one side of a small cubicle. We were placed on the other side, separated from George by a panel of some transparent material. Although George was securely confined in his side of the cubicle, throughout our visit a guard sat just outside it. And throughout our visit, which lasted about two hours, George Skatzes, as he sat on a concrete stool with no backrest, was handcuffed behind his back.