Citing brutal conditions that have led to inmate suicides, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio will file a federal civil rights action tomorrow, demanding significant and far reaching changes at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.

“All the evidence suggests that incarceration in conditions like those at Youngstown breeds violence and mental illness to a frightening degree,” said Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio.

“Our prisons should provide opportunities for reform, not breeding grounds for aggression and mental illness.”

The lawsuit is being brought by the ACLU of Ohio and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights as a class action on behalf of 21 named inmates.
If the court permits, the class action could ultimately be expanded to include a significant percentage of the 450 inmates currently housed at the prison, according to Ray Vasvari, legal director of the Ohio ACLU.

Vasvari noted that the inmates at the high maximum security facility -- known as a "Supermax" -- are not seeking money damages, but rather a court order requiring state officials to remedy a wide range of inhumane conditions, including the lack of recreation, mental health and medical care, the use of excessive restraints, and the lack of proper procedures governing transfer into and out of the Supermax.

“The inhumane conditions at the Supermax are not something that just happened because of bad management or neglect: they were part of the state’s plan from the start,” Vasvari said. “A prison like that belongs in the history of the Soviet Gulag, not in present-day America.”

According to the lawsuit, the Youngstown Supermax is a magnet for prisoners who are seriously mentally ill and who, as a result, require greater care and attention. Dozens have been placed on suicide watch. The practices and conditions specified in the lawsuit include:

  • Inmates are held 23 hours a day in solitary, confined to 7x14-foot concrete cells with built-in furniture
  • Fluorescent lights in the steel-doored cells remain on 24 hours a day; prisoners who attempt to shade their eyes are punished
  • Inmates are shackled and strip-searched each time they leave their cells
  • “Outdoor recreation” – such as it is and when allowed – is limited to 60 minutes a day in an unheated cell with a four inch slit in the wall. There is no indoor recreation facility.
  • Inmates who request psychiatric help (or any medical attention) are subjected to an interview shouted through cell doors, in front of prison guards and other prisoners
  • Psychotherapy is conducted while prisoners are chained to a pole
  • Visitors are prohibited from any physical contact with the inmates

These and many other inhumane conditions violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids the government from subjecting prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment, as well as similar provisions of international human rights law, the lawsuit charges.

The complaint also alleges that the rules for transferring prisoners into and out of the Supermax are essentially arbitrary, allowing for frequent and widespread abuse by prison officials, and that incarceration at the Supermax constitutes an unwarranted increase in the level of punishment.

The action is the culmination of a long investigation by well-known civil rights activists Staughton and Alice Lynd of Niles, who have tracked complaints of abuse at the Supermax since it opened in April 1998.