Commentary

06.24.15

How a Hunger Strike Caused Change in Youngstown Prison Policy

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Prisoners restrained by barbed wire in Statue of Liberty crown

If you go without food for just eight hours, your body will decrease its use of energy, the heart will pump slower, you will produce less heat, and hunger pains build.

Earlier this year, the ACLU of Ohio watched in dismay as people in Ohio’s super-maximum security prison in Youngstown went on a hunger strike.

ACLU Advocacy at Work

Extreme solitary, like at the Ohio State Penitentiary, makes behavior worse, not better.

The ACLU of Ohio sent a letter asking that the prison change troubling policies that place people in even more prolonged solitary confinement. To raise public awareness, we issued a press release calling for an investigation of the situation.

After talks with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, we are pleased to announce that most of our appeals for change were met, and the amount of people in the highest level of solitary confinement (5b) has decreased by more than 60 percent!

Even with this progress, it remains troubling that there are more than double the amount of people on the mental health caseload in this highest level of solitary confinement.

This means people incarcerated at the prison will get more phone calls home, more programming, and move more quickly toward greater privileges. The majority of people in prison return to our communities.

This monumental change happened after new prisoner assessments were conducted. Prison officials realized this question needed an honest answer: Are people in the highest level of solitary confinement because of security concerns?

It’s clear the majority were placed there arbitrarily. In April, 69 people were in the 5b level. After assessments, only 27 remain.

Continued Concerns

Even with this progress, it remains troubling that there are more than double the amount of people on the mental health caseload in this highest security level, which has 18 people. The next lower security level (5a) has eight.

The ACLU of Ohio also remains concerned about the continued ban on programming for the 27 people in 5b , who one could argue need the most rehabilitation.

So, What Happened?

The conditions at the prison are incredibly isolating. People are essentially in their cells for 23 hours-a-day, with little to no human contact, sometimes for two or more years. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy described OSP in an ACLU case as depriving inmates of almost any human contact.

After an incident in December, the prison changed its policies to place limits on: prisoners’ rights to practice their religion; restrictions on prisoners’ ability to move throughout their living quarters; elimination of programming offered to some prisoners; and cuts to the amount and quality of recreation.

These restrictions subjected people to an even more severe level of solitary confinement.

About 30 men, whose lives are spent without human contact in solitary confinement, went on hunger strike March 16. By the time it ended a month later, only five men remained fasting. They began the arduous task of eating again after the warden agreed to meet some of the striking prisoners’ requests for change.

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