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Mood tense on 20th anniversary of Ohio prison riot

Published: Saturday, April 6 2013 9:50 p.m. MDT

This 1993 file photo shows law officers and National Guard troops assembling outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility as a riot by inmates entered its 10th day in Lucasville, Ohio.   (Associated Press) This 1993 file photo shows law officers and National Guard troops assembling outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility as a riot by inmates entered its 10th day in Lucasville, Ohio. (Associated Press)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's been two decades this month since the longest deadly prison riot in U.S. history broke out in southern Ohio and there's trepidation in the air.

A prisons chief in Colorado and a district attorney in Texas and his wife have been slain.

The ratio of inmates to guards inside Ohio's prisons has crept up again after a dip that followed the 11-day siege at Lucasville's Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in 1993.

Double-bunking inmates, a trigger in the uprising that left one corrections officer and nine inmates dead, is back in use at a prison in Toledo. Serious assaults requiring outside medical attention have jumped from an average of three per year to 16 last year, and gang membership, while down slightly, stands at 16 percent.

Paul Goldberg, past executive director of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents unionized corrections officers, said "the red flags are there" that existed in 1993 but were ignored.

This April 13, 1993 file photo shows the body of the seventh prisoner killed at a riot at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, being removed by law enforcement authorities. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993.  (Associated Press) This April 13, 1993 file photo shows the body of the seventh prisoner killed at a riot at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, being removed by law enforcement authorities. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993. (Associated Press)

"It wasn't until we actually had the death of (Corrections Officer) Bobby Vallandingham and the riot in Lucasville that people understood that we'd been serious and what we'd been saying was real," Goldberg said. "I fear the same circumstances are emerging today."

Vallandingham was among 12 staff members taken hostage on April 11, 1993, when inmates overtook the prison that sits 10 miles north of the Ohio River. They were exiting the recreation yard on an Easter Sunday when it happened. Vallandingham was killed on the fourth day of the occupation, after his inmate captors had flown a bed sheet out the windows threatening to kill a hostage if certain demands weren't met.

Rioting inmates wanted to have single cells rather than be doubled up and wanted more classes and visitation. Muslim prisoners wanted an exemption from a mandatory tuberculosis test that they said violated their religion and an end to forced racial integration.

Historian-lawyers Staughton and Alice Lynd, a husband-and-wife team who have spent the past 20 years investigating circumstances surrounding the riot, are marking the anniversary with lectures around the state focusing on the five inmates sentenced to death for their roles in the riot.

This April 21, 1993 file photo shows inmates raising their hands in surrender as armed guards watch on the recreation yard of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993.  (Associated Press) This April 21, 1993 file photo shows inmates raising their hands in surrender as armed guards watch on the recreation yard of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993. (Associated Press)

Media access has never been allowed to the "Lucasville Five": Siddique Abdullah Hasan (formerly Carlos Sanders), Jason Robb, George Skatzes, Namir Abdul Mateen (formerly James Were) and Keith LaMar. The Associated Press' request to speak to them ahead of the Lucasville anniversary was denied.

Staughton Lynd, who has written a book asserting none of the five is Vallandingham's killer, said the state has yet to accept its share of the responsibility in the uprising so that justice can be served and conditions improved.

The Lynds arranged for LaMar to speak by phone to about 60 participants at an April 3 event at Youngstown State University revisiting the riot. LaMar, who was convicted of having a role in the slaying of prisoner informants during the riot, discussed being held in solitary confinement for 17 years, Lynd said.

Ohio prisons director Gary Mohr authored a voluminous report on the causes of the Lucasville riot as director of then-Gov. George Voinovich's Office of Criminal Justice. He said there's no question safety and security have improved since then.

This April 15, 1993 file photo shows the body of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility guard Robert Vallandingham carried from the prison in Lucasville, Ohio, after his body was found in the prison yard. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993.  (Associated Press) This April 15, 1993 file photo shows the body of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility guard Robert Vallandingham carried from the prison in Lucasville, Ohio, after his body was found in the prison yard. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993. (Associated Press)

Mohr can tick off a laundry list of targeted programs, legislative efforts and infrastructure upgrades in the past 20 years — and even the past two — that are making prison conditions better and guards safer.

He said all maximum-security inmates are housed in single cells. Through technology, staff are in better communication and are able to manage inmates with minimal physical contact that can bring violence, he said. The state has installed 4,000 new security cameras and assembled special-response teams across the state trained to handle disturbances.

And the administration plans a bill stepping up sanctions against inmates who throw bodily fluids at guards, Mohr said.

Christopher Knecht, a former inmate at Lucasville who served time both during the riot and some years afterward, said the two eras can't compare.

"The conditions now are nothing like they were," he said. "The only complaints now would be issues dealing with guard-prisoner relationship, classification, property, food, visits and things of that nature — typical complaints found at all prisons."

This Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1996 file photo shows Carlos Sanders, with cap, under heavy guard as he is led to court in Cincinnati, where jury selection began on his aggravated murder, kidnapping, and assault trial. Sanders is the alleged ringleader in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993. (Associated Press) This Tuesday, Jan. 16, 1996 file photo shows Carlos Sanders, with cap, under heavy guard as he is led to court in Cincinnati, where jury selection began on his aggravated murder, kidnapping, and assault trial. Sanders is the alleged ringleader in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day siege of April 1993. (Associated Press)

Yet the anniversary arrives as the national mood within the corrections profession is apprehensive.

Mohr considered slain Colorado prisons director Tom Clements a professional and personal friend. The two had talked a day before Clements was shot at his front door last month.

"Worrying is a sin, but I still worry," said Mohr, who's headed the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction since January 2011. "I think every director in this country is concerned about the safety and operations of the staff. We need to be. Just since I've been director, there have been seven corrections employees around the country that have lost their lives in the line of duty."

Luke Van Sickle, president of the prison guards' union at Lucasville, said the shadow of the riot is always present at the 1,625-acre prison, where 1,365 inmates are housed. That's down about 500 inmates from 1993.

"You'll constantly hear comments of 'Well, we're going to repeat '93.' They'll whisper that as they go down the hallway and pass you," he said. "As far as security, it's business as usual (for the anniversary). But everyone's on edge."

Van Sickle said the deaths of Clements and North Texas District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, are combining this year with memories of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut that left 28 dead to raise tensions.

This April 22, 1993 file photo shows a sign marking the end of an 11-day standoff at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.  The siege ended with one guard and eight inmates dead and one inmate missing. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day seige of April 1993.  (Associated Press) This April 22, 1993 file photo shows a sign marking the end of an 11-day standoff at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. The siege ended with one guard and eight inmates dead and one inmate missing. In the 20 years since the nation's longest deadly prison riot broke out in Lucasville, no interviews have been granted with the five men sentenced to death in the killing of a guard. Yet time has brought new evidence and insights that will dominate events marking the 20th anniversary of the 11-day seige of April 1993. (Associated Press)

"That just proves that you're not safe from inmates in a prison, and you're no longer safe outside a prison," he said.

He mentioned reduced staffing — including in Lucasville guard towers — and tougher qualifications for staff retirement as strains on the system. There's also concern over a proposal to privatize Ohio's prison food service and potentially cut back the volume or quality of meals.

Mohr said the Lucasville riot has taught him — and corrections officials across the U.S. — that prisons must combine tough sanctions against violence with opportunities for inmates to change. He said Ohio has added 526 beds for prisoners who commit violent acts as well as reintegration units that provide activities and education for those who display good behavior.

"We have to believe people can change," he said. "We have to provide systems to provide positive reinforcement for positive change because, ultimately, 97 percent of the people are going to come back out and live in these communities, and we cannot return a more bitter, hostile, unprepared population to be citizens in Ohio."

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