The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review - Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising

Lynd, Staughton. Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.
Available at Haymarket Books

Staughton Lynd’s Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising is a sharp, well researched account of the Lucasville prison uprising in 1993. Lynd’s purpose is multifaceted; on one hand the book serves to provide an accurate, truthful account of the events that occurred those tense eleven days and, on the other, it attempts to outline why the Lucasville Five have been unfairly persecuted by Ohio courts. Utilizing a variety of resources, he presents not only a much needed clarification of a story disfigured by the media and government officials, but also a poignant and holistic defense of those involved. By detailing the increasingly oppressive conditions which inmates were subject too, Lynd successfully recreates a comprehensive account of the context in which the Lucasville story should be understood. Lynd himself explains that a “central thesis of this book is that the State of Ohio and its citizens need to face up to the state’s share of responsibility for what happened at Lucasville.” Lastly, he presents the overarching idea throughout the book that racial prejudice, as exemplified by the solidarity shown between the Lucasville Five, can be overcome. He articulates how all of these postulations are intricately connected and how anyone who values justice and equality should stand alongside the Lucasville Five.

The real story of the uprising at Lucasville has been shrouded in emotionally charged, biased media coverage and state records manipulated by government officials. Lynd sets out to present an alternative but lucid account utilizing a vast array of sources. The official story goes something along the lines of a group of brutal inmates, with little or no justification, erupted in a horrific display of violence due to a few trouble makers; namely, two Black Muslims by the name of Namir Abdul Mateen (James Were) and Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), two members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Jason Robb and George Skatzes, and finally Bomani Shakur (Keith Lamar). These men, according to the state, were the conspirators who started all the trouble and ordered killings of both the prisoners and guards during the eleven day episode. Lynd portrays another, more believable scenario.

One of his first goals is to recreate the context in which the uprising originally occurred. He does this by using prisoner testimony, state records, and other sources detailing the long list of abuses and increasingly oppressive conditions. The story really begins when a new warden, Warren Arthur Tate, whom prisoners nicknamed “King Arthur” for his top-down authoritarian management style, begins a series of controversial “reforms” in the prison. First, education and other rehabilitation programs were severely cutback and restricted so that only a select portion of inmates were eligible for them. Among the primary demands of the prisoners were to "reduce the amount of idle time inmates spend in their cells” and “implement progressive rehabilitation programs. We want college and voc schools opened up [for]....the majority of the population here.”

Tate’s policies of double-celling prisoners with known rancor (racial or otherwise), forced integration, and intense overcrowding were extremely unpopular. Lucasville was designed for 1,540 prisoners and had 1,820 at the time of the uprising with 804 prisoners double celled. Inmates, even who displayed good behavior, were largely unable to transfer to other facilities (including the so-called "leaders," some of whom were very close to parole). Many prisoners were forced to integrate with others who they did not get along with and prisoners were often celled racially so that whites and blacks with known hostilities were paired together. Before this, 33% of the cells were racially integrated on a volunteer basis. However, when this became a forced practice prisoners had to pair with other inmates whom they hated. It is not hard to draw from this that "King Arthur" wanted "an explosion to be between the whites and the blacks" so he could request increased funding from the state for security purposes. An extreme example of this is when guards forced an eighteen year old black teenager, William, into a cell with a well known and extremely hostile member of the Aryan brotherhood; they stood by watching as the older white man beat William in the face with a padlock concealed in a sock.

The guards not only fueled tension between inmates, they often actively participated in racial beat downs. In 1983, two guards beat to death Jimmy Haynes, a mentally disturbed African American prisoner. While nurses stood watching, one guard jumped on Hayne's neck while another guard held a nightstick behind it. Two other black prisoners, Lincoln Carter and John Ingram, were alleged to have touched white nurses. They were beaten by guards and found dead in their cells in the hole the following day. No criminal charges were pressed.

This sort of guard brutality, while an extreme example, provides a vivid illustration of the treatment prisoners were routinely exposed to. On top of this, conditions in the prison were horrendous. Detailed accounts are provided where "prisoners were chained to cell fixtures, subjected to chemical mace and tear gas, forced to sleep on cell floors, and brutally beaten, which violated the United Nations Minimum Standards." Inmates were allowed only one call of five minutes per year. Visiting restrictions were extremely limited and many people could not have visitors at all. Medical problems were not properly taken care of, as one prisoner explained, "[w]e are given Tylenol...for just about everything." In fact, conditions were so bad that at one point three prisoners cut of their own fingers and mailed them to then President Carter to try and garner more attention to the situation.

Lynd moves on to discuss the injustice surrounding cases of capital punishment and specifically the Lucasville Five. He outlines various general injustices common in the court systems: defendants are not permitted to participate in the indictment process, the fact that rights are recognized and implemented only to the extent that they are asserted (a less experienced lawyer may accidentally or intentionally forfeit rights, due to procedural requirements, that can be forever lost), the extremely flawed jury selection which automatically removes any potential juror opposed to the death penalty but not those in favor of it, and the despotic rule that a judge can override the jury and still order the death penalty. However, he also explicates many examples of court decisions and biased behavior exhibited by court officials that weighed prodigiously upon the outcome of the case. To cite just one example of many, the funding provided for the prosecution was immense while the defense team were originally only authorized $700. On top of that, in Siddique Abdullah Hasan’s case, the court intentionally obstructed competent appointment of effective counsel. Citing Hasan’s habeas petition, Lynd shows that “from the time of Hasan’s indictment until his trial [he] had three different sets of attorneys,” the last of which was appointed just two months before trial.

Lastly, Lynd presents a vivid picture of the racial unity that occurred throughout the takeover. Prisoners from L-Block, broken up into three distinct groups (the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Muslims, and Black Gangster Disciples), presented a magnificent display of solidarity, despite the racial tensions in the prison. Lynd outlines how they came to agree that all inmates, black or white, faced a common oppressor. Indeed, Lynd recounts the story of when Aryan Brotherhood member George Skatzes, “facing his fellow whites in the bleachers… put his arm around Little Willie’s [a black inmate] shoulder” and exclaimed:
This is against the administration. We are all in this together. They are against every one in here who’s blue [the color of the prisoner’s uniforms]…If they come in here, they are going to kill all of us. They’re going to kill this man and me, no matter what color we are.
Various pictures are shown throughout the book that captures this mood. Graffiti in L Block proclaim “Black and White Together, 11 Days” and “Convict Race.” These examples dismantle the stereotype of ruthless, violent prison brutes that are hopelessly set in their ideological and racial convictions.

Lynd makes use of an immense arsenal of sources that provide the firepower for his thoroughly researched argument. Throughout the book he solidifies his argument with a multitude of resources such as official state records, oral testimony, court proceedings, recorded tapes, pictures taken during the uprising, media accounts, and a variety of other means. As a retired lawyer, Lynd knew how to compile a compelling evidentiary base upon which he could formulate his postulation. After the main text of his work he provides the reader with a chronology based upon testimony from a State Highway Patrolman involved in the case. After that he goes on to provide six appendixes, which, in order, are a transcript of the tunnel tape which authorities placed underground to listen to the prisoners during the uprising, a copy of the eighteen demands put forth by prisoners, copies of documents circulated by death penalty advocates which contained names of members of the pool of possible grand jurists, another anti-death penalty petition and two tables suggesting selective persecution based on court indictments and sentencing. Overall, Lynd’s liberal use of any and all evidence he could muster up provides the compelling weight needed to prove his theses and simultaneously fight for justice in the case.

The methodical approach to Lucasville is unique and combines a multitude of factors. Lynd makes extensive use of primary sources, oral history, and the ideas thrown around during the entire ordeal which, in a sense, provides an intellectual historical analysis. However, Lynd’s primary approach is economic, or material. He makes use of the historical and material conditions which caused the riot; by synthesizing the reality of prison life, the circumstances under which inmates of different races can come together, the societal structures which betray a pattern of injustice in criminalizing certain sectors of the population, and a host of other socio-economic qualifications, he provides the reader with an extremely useful material analysis. He carefully crafts the intellectual approach into the material analysis into a symbiotic narration which provides a powerful defense for the Lucasville Five.

Lynd provides a dynamic and evidential argument for the Lucasville Five, the guilt of the state in perpetuating injustice and, subsequently, the uprising itself. The major strength of the book is the enormous amount of sourced material which he uses to bolster his argument. The percussive impact of rebuttal after rebuttal of official state lies opens up room for serious questioning of both the trials and court proceedings of those involved but also the prison system as an institution. Lynd brilliantly ties in material and economic conditions and explains how they gave rise to the ideas postulated during the uprising. He also provides the reader with some necessary photos to help draw out evidence for his argument and give the reader mental images of the various names and places scattered throughout the book.

Lynd’s main theses are well argued and they present important aspects of understanding not only this case, but the justice system itself. It is not dense or hard to read; rather, Lynd’s interesting style and presentation allow the reader a smooth transition and invoke the desire to keep turning the pages. Those looking for a solid critique of the privately run, business-model prison institution should check out this book. Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising ought to be required reading for anyone interested in social justice or reforming a corrupt, brutal, dehumanizing prison system.


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