Black and White on the Inside
— Christopher Phelps
Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising
by Staughton Lynd
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. 235 pages. $16.95.
IN APRIL 1993, Lucasville, Ohio, was the site of the longest prison siege in U.S. history during which lives were lost — longer even than the far more infamous 1971 Attica rebellion.
In the course of the 11-day occupation, several hundred prisoners took over a cell block and murdered one correctional officer and nine prisoners. Now five Lucasville rebels sit on death row, convicted for their role in those deaths.
If you have never heard of Lucasville, it is because the national news in April 1993 was dominated by events unfolding simultaneously in Waco, Texas. Now you have a chance to make up for lost time with Staughton Lynd’s gripping account, Lucasville.
Lynd is a historian known for his 1960s activism who is now a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio. His book on the Lucasville uprising is equal parts history, detective work, moral reflection and legal plea.
Lynd presents a startling, bold case. He proclaims the guilt not of the death-row prisoners, but of the State of Ohio: “I accuse the State of deliberately framing innocent men,” he writes.
Lucasville begins with the origins of the rebellion, for which Lynd believes the state bears primary responsibility. Built in 1972, the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) houses maximum-security prisoners, mostly Black, from urban centers like Cincinnati and Cleveland, in a locale that is completely white. (Not one African American resided in Lucasville at the time of the riot.)
The prison immediately acquired a brutal reputation. Guards beat three African- American prisoners to death in two separate incidents during the 1980s.
In 1990, a mentally unstable SOCF inmate killed a young school teacher who was assisting prisoners in obtaining high-school diplomas. Although other prisoners were horrified, the boom fell.
The new prison warden, Arthur Tate, locked down the prison, confining all prisoners to cell. He eliminated all educational programs, imposed such behavioral strictures as requiring prisoners to walk in double-file formation between lines when in corridors, and cultivated a ring of informants by denying work and cell-mate privileges to those who wouldn’t snitch. (All but one of the prisoners killed in the 1993 melée were confirmed informers.)
In addition, the prison was overcrowded and the authorities sought to foment racial tension. The prison was badly overcrowded at 1,820 when the riot began; it was designed to hold only 1,540. Overcrowding prompted double-celling, and the assignment of cellmates involved forced racial integration, aggravating inmate tension and resentment.
The final straw was Warden Tate’s imposition of a tuberculosis test by injection. Black Muslims believed the test contained alcohol, forbidden by their religion. They requested that Tate instead test for tuberculosis by X-ray or sputum sample.
Tate insisted on injection. His move was sure to provoke a reaction, and Lynd writes that many prisoners speculate Tate “was hoping for a controllable disturbance that would allow him to ask the state legislature for more money.”
When the uprising began — on Easter Sunday, as prisoners were returning from outside recreation — the intention of Muslim prisoners was to take a few guards hostage, then release them after negotiating.
After the initial pandemonium, a declaration rang out: “Lucasville is ours! This is not racial, I repeat, not racial. It’s us against the administration! We’re tired of these people fucking us over. Is everybody with us? Let’s hear ya.”
A roar filled the cell block. Prisoners soon drafted demands that included the removal of Tate as warden, an end to forced integrated celling, and the ability to grow hair and beards to any length desired, among other grievances they hoped to see addressed.
Who Killed Officer Vallandingham?
Lynd’s systematic examination of who killed correctional officer Robert Vallandingham is a page-turner. First, he conveys in depth the backgrounds of the Lucasville Five — Namir Abdul Mateen (James Were), Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), Bomani Hando Shakur (Keith Lamar), George Skatzes and Jason Robb, all of whom came from poor working-class backgrounds and broken families.
After their imprisonment, the first three became Muslims, while the last two joined the Aryan Brotherhood. Intriguingly, these prisoners, Black and white, members of organizations with antithetical ideologies, forged an alliance during the Lucasville revolt that has endured to this day.
The state responded to the takeover crisis by cutting off water and electricity in the wing seized by the prisoners, L Block. The prisoners added a new demand to their list: restoration of water and electricity.
Next came a fateful turn of events. The state’s spokeswoman, Tessa Unwin, characterized the prisoners’ demands as self-serving and petty. She questioned their claim that a guard might be killed if the authorities did not respond: “They’ve been threatening something like this from the beginning. It’s part of the language of negotiation.”
In L Block, listening on battery-powered radios, the rebels interpreted this as a lack of respect, a challenge to their credibility and manhood. The outcome was the death of officer Vallandingham.
In a persuasive analysis of the scanty evidence, Lynd finds that while the Lucasville Five were leaders of the rebellion — therefore winning the ire of prosecutors —someone else was responsible for the death of Vallandingham.
State prosecutors claimed that tape- recordings made from a tunnel beneath L Block prove a conspiracy to murder an officer. Lynd appends the entire transcript to his book. It corroborates his view that the only decision made at the prisoners’ meeting referred to the day’s negotiating demands, not killing an officer.
The rebellious inmates did raise the possibility of killing an officer should demands not be met, but they all agreed not to do so until a later discussion could be arranged. Lynd’s theory — as much conjectural as the state’s, but just as plausible — is that “when a guard was in fact killed that morning, it was not as a result of the morning meeting but because a group of prisoners, in a rogue action, took the matter into their own hands.”
In particular, Lynd provides prisoner affidavits creating a very strong impression that the person who arranged the death of Vallandingham was Anthony Lavelle, leader of the Black Gangster Disciples, the third main prison faction in addition to the Aryan Brotherhood and Muslims.
Lynd shows that the leaders of the uprising were restrained in their conduct. They released many hostages and were conscientious about safety. After Vallandingham’s death, they negotiated a non- binding 21-point agreement that ended the crisis voluntarily, averting a catastrophe like Attica.
The agreement, which promised no selective prosecution of perceived leaders of the rebellion, was later disregarded by authorities. Lynd holds that it was because they had been prisoner spokesmen and negotiators that prosecutors targeted the Lucasville Five. The state sought to make examples of the rebellion’s leaders.
Furthermore, the public clamor for vengeance, including a petition signed by tens of thousands of Ohioans calling for use of the death penalty, made it impossible for the Five to receive impartial trials.
No physical evidence whatsoever — no fingerprints, no footprints, no blood samples — connected any of the Lucasville Five to the murder. The death sentences were handed down exclusively on the basis of prison witnesses’ testimony.
The most prominent witness was none other than Anthony Lavelle, who had an obvious motive in deflecting attention from his own probable involvement. Some of the other witnesses have since recanted their earlier testimony. Lynd presents sufficient evidence and argumentation to cast more than reasonable doubt on the convictions of the Lucasville Five.
The Death Penalty
Lucasville has both an immediate purpose and several general purposes. The immediate agenda is to mobilize public opinion to achieve amnesty for the Lucasville Five.
In the 1970s, the governor of New York was compelled to grant amnesty to the Attica rebels based upon revelations of state malfeasance. Lynd contends the Lucasville Five’s death sentences should be wiped clean on the same grounds. He includes a petition in the book to enable readers to voice their support for amnesty.
The more general implications of Lucasville are twofold: to call into question the death penalty in general, and to promote the Lucasville uprising as an inspiring story of working-class racial solidarity.
Sentencing in the Lucasville case was imposed in Cincinnati, infamous for its racism and the death penalty capital of Ohio. Jury selection removed from consideration all death penalty skeptics and opponents; strong proponents of the death penalty were allowed to remain as jurors.
Lynd shows how the defendants had inadequate legal resources in proportion to state prosecutors. He shows how the juries had racial compositions far whiter than the Cincinnati area.
Beyond the specific case under consideration, Lynd implies, the death penalty is unwarranted. The legal system is so distorted by deep-seated inequalities by race and class that its verdicts are not trustworthy.
Race and Rebellion
Given the remarkable coalition of the Aryan Brotherhood and Black adherents of Islam at Lucasville, Lynd reflects on how racism is sometimes surmounted. Here he places his findings in opposition to “whiteness” studies by authors who, he claims, find “white workers in the United States ...incurably racist.”
This is unfair to David Roediger and other scholars of whiteness, who emphasize racism as a constitutive part of working- class life in the evident hope that racism will be recognized and overcome. Lynd’s larger point, however, is welcome: that poor and working-class people can surmount their prejudices to unite in struggle.
At SOCF, 57% of the prison population before the uprising was African American. White prisoners felt outnumbered and intimidated, but 85% of the guards were white and force was exercised disproportionately against Black inmates.
Both white and Black prisoners interpreted their confinement as racially discriminatory. Inmates joined the Aryan Brotherhood, Muslims, or Black Gangster Disciples for self-protection. Nonetheless, they came together in the rebellion.
All of the prisoners killed in the first hours of the Lucasville uprising were white, and all but one of the guards taken hostage were white. However, the Black prisoners were adamant that their opposition was to the administration, not whites in general, and white inmates joined the uprising.
In L Block, “Black and White Together” was written again and again on walls, banners and signs. It is indeed an inspiring story. Unfortunately, it is marred by Lynd’s uncritical summary of the Aryan Brotherhood’s belief system.
He shows persuasively that George Skatzes never really embraced the organization’s white supremacist teachings. However, he accepts at face value a number of statements made by Jason Robb, a more ardent adherent of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Robb states that he respects other races but prefers separatism. Lynd seems unaware that much of the modern white supremacist movement has used this guise of “separatism” as a public cover for unvarnished Nazi and Klan white supremacism.
Inadvisably, Lynd reproduces page after page of absurd statements by Robb to the effect that he is merely exploring his “Aryan” cultural heritage out of desire to resist assimilation into the African-American prison majority.
Within a white-dominated prison system, as in white-dominated society in general, there is nothing benign about whites emphasizing their whiteness, certainly nothing equivalent to black cultural pride. Here Lynd’s role as legal defender of Robb contradicts his obligation to lay bare the retrograde character of racist organization as a form of self-defense for working-class whites.
There is much to be said for Lynd’s complex and discerning view that a redemptive process of reconciliation can occur — even if paradoxically — around a common front for autonomy of white and Black. One can be a proponent of interracial democracy and object to such prison administration practices as forced interracial celling.
Lynd’s point is well-taken that campaigns for self-determination and autonomy, even if driven by racial distinctions, can bring whites and Blacks together in making common demands on the prison system and thereby lead them to recognize their common humanity.
They will only do so, however, insofar as they are capable of setting aside the racially separatist and supremacist attitudes promoted by groups like the Aryan Brotherhood, as Robb seems to have done in his life if not very successfully in his theory.
With that qualification, Lucasville is a compelling account of an historic prison rebellion and an appalling miscarriage of justice. It deserves the widest possible readership.
ATC 112, September-October 2004