In a historic decision issued today, Judge James S. Gwin, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio issued a 57-page opinion finding that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction violated Ohio State Penitentiary prisoners’ constitutional rights by denying them due process in their placement and retention at the Supermax facility in Youngstown. The parties had previously reached a settlement on issues regarding mental and physical health care, use of restraints and outdoor recreation. The trial on the remaining classification issue, filed on behalf of prisoners by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, lasted for five days, from January 7-11, 2002.

In a 1995 case, Sandin v. Conners, the United States Supreme Court set a high bar for prisoners seeking to challenge the conditions of their confinement. The Court held that conditions would only give rise to a liberty interest implicating due process concerns where they posed an “atypical and significant hardship” on the prisoners in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life. Should those severe conditions arise, classification and retention must be accomplished through procedures that guarantee prisoners’ due process rights. Today’s decision is the first since Sandin in which a court sided with a class of prisoners and found that prison conditions were so draconian as to give rise to a liberty interest.

“The importance of today’s decision cannot be overstated,” said Staughton Lynd, ACLU volunteer attorney. “Not only is it an historic legal moment, but it will significantly affect the lives of the over 300 men incarcerated at Supermax.” “The court has recognized that while the prison was designed to house the worst of the worst offenders, it has failed in that goal. Prisoners have been placed there by what often has amounted to a departmental fiat, with no notice of evidence against them and no opportunity to answer the charges. This court’s decision will have far-reaching effects on future prison litigation,” stated Ray Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

The court found that ODRC’s procedure for selecting and retaining inmates under high-maximum classification at Supermax has “great potential for error.” For example, one individual, the Department’s North Regional Director, was given the final decision on placement and retention at the facility. This resulted in individuals being retained at Supermax even after the Department’s reclassification committee had determined that their security status should be reduced.

The impact that this type of classification decision has on inmates is immense. Prisoners cannot be considered for parole while they are classified as high-maximum security, resulting in men remaining incarcerated up to eight years beyond the parole board’s original recommendation.

A hearing will be scheduled for sometime in March, during which the parties will discuss ways to implement the court’s decision.