Published: Sunday, June 11, 2006
Forum raises prison issues
One California prison focuses on learning empathy and group therapy.
By SEAN BARRON
YOUNGSTOWN For many people, the most practical solution to dealing with crime and those who commit violent acts is fairly straightforward: Lock up the offenders for as long as possible and, in some cases, throw away the key or pull the switch.
But do those methods alone, along with a burgeoning growth in the number of maximum security prisons in the nation, make society safer and inmates who are freed less likely to commit new crimes?
Those were among the numerous issues pertaining to crime and punishment addressed Saturday at the Youngstown Prison Forum. The seven-hour conference in Youngstown State University's Beeghly Hall took a critical look at social roles of prisons in Ohio, as well as mental health and human rights issues for inmates, and alternatives to prison.
The event, co-sponsored by the Youngstown Workers' Solidarity Club and YSU's Dr. James Dale Ethics Center and Department of English, featured various workshops and a panel of women who have family members on Death Row. The conference also had presentations on readjusting to society after being incarcerated and information relating to the 11 days of rioting in 1993 at the maximum-security facility in Lucasville.
Kicking off the sessions was a 50-minute film that pointed out the contrasts between how inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary on state Route 616 are handled compared with about 60 violent offenders in the San Francisco County Jail.
The 2002 film followed operations at the Youngstown Supermax facility, which opened in 1998 in Coitsville Township, and showed, for example, the procedures for strip-searching new inmates and how most of the approximately 465 prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day with few privileges. Interspersed with those portions was footage showing an experimental program at the California lockup in which the emphasis for changing violent behavior was on learning empathy and participating in group therapy instead of on punishment.
Theresa Lyons, Janice Conway and Ruth Group, members of the newly formed Loved Ones of Prisoners, shared their feelings and stories about what it's like to have a son or grandson sentenced to death. Inmates condemned to death were moved to Youngstown earlier this year; prisoners are still sent to Lucasville for the actual execution.
Lyons, whose grandson Odraye Jones was sentenced to die for the killing of an Ashtabula police officer in 1998, contended he was convicted on flimsy evidence. A 12-year-old girl said she saw Jones commit the crime, yet his fingerprints were never found on the gun, Lyons said.
"I'm a victim because my [grandson's] on Death Row for something he didn't do. I've been suffering for eight years," the Youngstown woman said.
Conway and Group shared similar stories pertaining to their sons, whom they say were wrongly convicted of aggravated murder.
Carol Parcell of Akron said she's come across new evidence that could exonerate her son, Brett Hartmann, who she says was convicted of aggravated murder, kidnapping and other charges on faulty evidence before being given the death penalty about eight years ago. Parcell is a member of Families that Matter and Ohioans to Stop Executions, both anti-death-penalty groups.
The panel was made up of Dr. Kathryn Burns of the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board, Dr. Ayham Haddad, a former OSP physician, and Atty. Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Gamso told the audience of a client he represents who was sentenced to death twice before having his sentenced commuted to life in prison. The man suffered a lifetime of sexual and other abuse, mitigating circumstances that the courts twice failed to consider before the 4-3 Ohio Supreme Court ruling that reduced the man's sentence.
"We have a system that doesn't work," Gamso said of the imposition of capital punishment, adding that many on death row in Ohio are mentally ill.
Kunta Kenyatta, a member of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a national organization set up to reduce crime through criminal justice reform, discussed his experiences upon being released after serving 16 years, three at OSP, before being freed in November 2002. Kenyatta said re-entry into society was initially difficult, but he has gotten a job and owns a home.
Laurie Hoover, a member of CURE-Ohio, said her group fights for prison reforms and inmates' rights. Life for many prisoners, especially over the past several years, is tougher because fewer education and rehabilitation programs are offered as more prisons focus strictly on punishment and making higher profits, she said.
Each inmate's case should be looked at individually, and they are more likely to be repeat offenders if they aren't "given tools to know what options they have to lead to change," Hoover explained.
Wrapping up the program was a presentation by Atty. Staughton Lynd in which he talked about the April 1993 prison riots at Lucasville that resulted in the death of a corrections officer. Five prisoners were handed the death penalty for the killing of officer Robert Vallandingham, but at least two of them were unfairly sentenced based on false testimony, Lynd contended.
Group announced that two silent vigils will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m. July 16 and 23 near the Ohio State Penitentiary on behalf of inmates scheduled to be put to death.