The issue of access to criminals in Ohio’s prison system is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by five inmates convicted in the Lucasville prison riot and a group of writers and producers who want to interview them on camera. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler talked to two people involved in the suit – a death row inmate and a reporter who wants to interview him.
For years, media access to inmates who were involved in the deadly Lucasville riot in 1993 has been prohibited.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has said there are a number of reasons for this ban, including behavior and security concerns.
But that hasn’t stopped reporters, authors, producers and others around the country from asking.
One of those producers is Noelle Hanrahan, who is the director of the multimedia project Prison Radio.
“When I asked and went through the proper channels, we were told that it was only because of what the content of their speech was one of the defining issues for the prison," Hanrahan said. "That they were worried about what these inmates were going to say.”
Hanrahan says the First Amendment doesn’t stop at the prison walls, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio agrees. It filed the suit on behalf of Hanrahan and three others -- former Bowling Green State University professor Derrick Jones, author and former New York Times reporter Christopher Hedges and James Ridgeway of the prison watchdog website Solitary Watch.
Hanrahan says she’s talked over the phone to the inmates, but she and others want extended, on-camera interviews.
That’s what the inmates want, too. When they do talk to reporters, they do so through phone calls through their attorneys.
That’s how I talked with Siddique Abdullah Hasan, who says the ban isn’t based on security issues – because reporters are permitted to do final interviews with convicted murderers before their executions.
“Hell, what prisoner that’s on death row for not a violent crime?" Hasan said. "No one is on death row for missing Sunday school. In fact, no one is in the prison system in Ohio for missing Sunday school. There’s nothing unique about our cases. So that wouldn’t be – that’s not the issue. I mean, they can try to pull the wool over the people’s eyes like that, but that’s not the issue. Trust me.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit includes five inmates: Hasan, who used to be known as Carlos Sanders, George Skatzes, Keith Lamar and Jason Robb, who are all on death row, and Gregory Curry, who’s serving a life sentence.
Hasan, who says he was wrongly convicted, says he feels on-cameras interviews will help exonerate him and the others. He was part of a hunger strike around the 20th anniversary of the riot, which he says led to the lawsuit.
“It’s not like we was going on a death fast because we’re not trying to kill ourselves," Hasan said. "We're trying to get the hell out of prison and trying to have access to the media so we can get out and be among our family friends and loved ones once again before we pass away, before they pass away. So we made the decision, the next step for us to do is to take it to court.”
Hanrahan says Prison Radio is involved in the lawsuit because 2 million people are in state-run prisons around the country. And Hanrahan says she’s run up against similar access restrictions and bans in prisons departments nationwide. But she says prisons departments can’t cherrypick who reporters can have access to based on what they might say – which she realizes may not be the most reliable information.
“That’s a decision that I as a reporter need to make for myself," Hanrahan said, "and that I have an obligation to the public at large to make those kinds of calls and those kinds of decisions in my role. There’s a reason why journalists are ensconced in the Constitution. There have to be checks and balances.”
Prisons department spokesperson JoEllen Smith says because this is pending litigation, the department can’t comment on the lawsuit or the claims in it.