Lawsuit seeks interviews with Ohio riot inmates

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A long-standing ban on allowing media interviews by prison inmates convicted for their role in Ohio's deadly 1993 prison riot is unconstitutional and meant only to stifle public discussion of the riot, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

The prison system's policy is inconsistent, especially when the backgrounds of other high-security inmates granted access to reporters is reviewed, the lawsuit said. Among those are several death row inmates, including Frank Spisak, a neo-Nazi convicted of killing three people at Cleveland State University in 1982 and executed in 2011.

The only plausible reason for granting interviews to people like Spisak and denying access to Lucasville inmates "is the desire to stifle public discussion of the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising," said the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, filed in federal court in Columbus.

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the agency can't comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit cites several examples of reporters being denied interviews over the years with Lucasville riot inmates, including Siddique Abdullah Hasan, who received the death sentence for the killing of guard Robert Vallandingham.

In May, Hasan, also known as Carlos Sanders, ended a nearly monthlong hunger strike in an unsuccessful protest of the interview bans, which included the denial of a request by The Associated Press. He was one of several Lucasville riot inmates who participated in the hunger strike.

Under recent policy changes, Hasan and other inmates may make telephone calls of up to an hour, including to reporters. But hunger strikers argued that in-person meetings captured on video are a more powerful way to tell their side of the story.

At the time, Smith told the AP that many factors were weighed, including safety, security, the effect on staff and the nature of the case.

Monday's lawsuit includes similar explanations over the years.

"Decisions regarding inmate interview requests are based on a number of different screening criteria, including the overall safe operation of the facility and potential impact on crime victims," a warden's assistant at Ohio's death row in Chillicothe wrote a San Francisco journalist in February denying a request to interview Lucasville inmate George Skatzes.

In many cases, the state says its most closely supervised inmates aren't eligible for interviews, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Skatzes is not one of its most closely supervised inmates, but still can't be interviewed.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Noelle Hanrahan, director and producer of Prison Radio in Philadelphia; Christopher Hedges, an author and former New York Times reporter in Princeton, N.J.; Derrick Jones, a former Bowling Green State University professor now at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo.; and James Ridgeway, co-editor of a website, "Solitary Watch" in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit was also brought on behalf of death row inmates Hassan, Skatzes, Keith Lamar and Jason Robb, and inmate Gregory Curry, who is serving a life sentence for the Lucasville riots.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.