A week-long trial begins Monday in a class-action lawsuit brought by more than 300 inmates over brutal conditions at the “Supermax” prison in Youngstown.
The case, filed on behalf of the inmates last January by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the New-York based Center for Constitutional Rights, broadly challenges many aspects of incarceration at the Ohio State Penitentiary, the only super maximum – “Supermax” -- security prison in the state.
“This prison was supposed to house the worst and most violent inmates in the state,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari, “but that seems never to have been the case. Who gets in, who stays in and for how long is all a matter of luck. That is more than unfair: it is unconstitutional.”
A year of litigation and intense negotiations have already produced substantial changes at the facility, Vasvari said. In late 2001, for example, U.S. District Judge James Gwin issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the incarceration of seriously mentally ill inmates there.
Before the start of the trail on Monday, Judge Gwin will make a special trip to the prison to hear opening statements, view the facilities and give inmates the opportunity to see the beginning of the trial.
The public portion of the trial will begin in Akron on Monday at noon. Thereafter, the case will be tried every day from 8:00 am through 5:00 pm until completed. The trial will be held in the fifth floor courtroom of the Federal Courthouse, 2 South Main Street, Akron.
Among the issues to be addressed at the trial are whether conditions at the prison are so different from other state prisons as to give prisoners the legal right to protest their transfer there. If so, the next question at trial will be whether the process the state uses to assign prisoners to the Supermax –and to keep them there for years on end – is fair. Attorneys for the inmates said that the process is an inconsistent maze of complex regulations, that produces arbitrary results, keeping some inmates in the Supermax despite strong evidence that they have reformed their conduct. Such procedures violate the constitutional right to due process of law.
The case is Austin et al. v. Wilkinson et al., filed in the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division. ACLU Attorneys in the case are legal director Vasvari, staff counsel Jillian Davis, Staughton and Alice Lynd, who are of counsel, and Michael Benza, volunteer attorney. CCR attorneys are Bill Goodman, legal director, Jules Lobel, cooperating attorney, and Terry Gilbert, cooperating attorney.