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Ohio Prisoners Face Crackdown For Speaking Publicly About National Strike

Ohio prison officials revoked phone access for one year and suspended other privileges for an incarcerated activist, who spoke publicly in support of a nationwide prison protest scheduled to begin August 21.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan has advocated prisoner resistance for decades from death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he has lived ever since a court ruled he was complicit in the death of a corrections officer during the 1993 Lucasville Uprising.

The severe disciplinary action he faces is illustrative of the absurd lengths to which prison officials will go to prevent prisoners from speaking about the upcoming strike. The incident also exposes how prison officials are adapting their efforts to preempt prisoner resistance through social media surveillance and targeted harassment.

Hasan was placed on lockdown on July 27 after Brian Wittrup filed a conduct report. Wittrup leads the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s (ODRC) Bureau of Classification, which places him in charge of prisoners’ security level and housing placements.

Wittrup wrote that the chief inspector’s office and his bureau’s Security Threat Group Intelligence Unit were tipped off on Hasan in the process of “monitoring communications and social media postings related to planning a nationwide prison strike from August 21 to September 9, 2018.”

“On Monday, July 16, mail room staff at the Ohio State Penitentiary screened correspondence for inmate Sanders (Hasan) R130-559 sent to him by an approved visitor Ben Turk. The correspondence was propaganda supporting the prison strike this year.”

Turk is an abolitionist organizer who has worked alongside Hasan and other prisoners for years. He told Shadowproof the “propaganda” to which Wittrup was referring was an edition of the “Fire Inside” zine, featuring perspectives on the September 9, 2016 strikes from activists on both sides of the prison walls.

The zine also endorsed upcoming prisoner-led direct actions to demand an end to slave labor, abusive conditions, a lack of opportunity and rehabilitation, and more. It placed the upcoming strike in the context of recent uprisings, like that which occurred at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Missouri and the hunger strikes and work stoppages at Angola.

“I let [Hasan] know what it was I was trying to send him, and that there’s possible risks with it,” Turk said. He added Hasan “told me to send it to him and so I did.”

That intercepted mail led officials to monitor Hasan’s phone calls. On one call, they overheard him mention he organizes with the Free Ohio Movement, a “collective effort of individuals, families and groups, who are concerned about the judicial and prison system in the state.”

He was also heard advocating for direct action by prisoners, when he delivered a speech via the prison phone system to protesters assembled outside the Supreme Court on June 30.

Wittrup warned, “Inmate [Hasan] is attempting to incite support and spread the word to engage in an organized prison disturbance,” and that Hasan “acknowledged the prison strike he is advocating for involved direct action in the prisons, not just an expression of ideas about prison reform.”

He accused Hasan of violating prison rules by accepting money for speaking engagements. “Telephone monitoring has determined [Hasan] intends to speak to a group of people, including a radio personality, on Saturday July 28, 2018. For this, he is to receive a payment of $250 from the Union sponsoring the event.”

For all of the above, Wittrup levied five charges against Hasan:

  • Rioting or encouraging others to riot;
  • Engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage;
  • Conducting business operations with any person or entity outside the institution, whether or not for profit, without specific permission in writing from the warden;
  • Use of telephone or mail in furtherance of any criminal activity;
  • Any violation of any published institutional rules, regulations or procedures

Hasan initiated a hunger strike the following day to protest the conduct report.

Stoughton and Alice Lynd, two Ohio attorneys working with Hasan on an ongoing media access lawsuit against ODRC, said most of his property was confiscated during lockdown. “He has no pen, paper, kites, envelopes, stamps, or legal work,” they shared.

Even more disturbingly, prison officials were so concerned with silencing Hasan that they barricaded his cell. “There are a security barrier and sandbags outside his cell door (presumably to prevent anyone from passing anything to him),” the lawyers added.

*

“This seems like a really unique and different situation,” Ben Turk told Shadowproof. “In the past, like when [prison officials] made up the thing about bombing the prison, that was so obviously bullshit. They got what they really wanted, I think, which was to restrict his communications so he couldn’t speak during the strike, but that was not a permanent change in his situation. Now it seems like they’re trying to create a permanent change in his situation.”

For one, Turk points to the sandbags officials piled outside his door. He speculated they didn’t move him to the solitary unit this time because Hasan previously was able to communicate with other people through air vents and pass along messages.

“They’re trying new things to try to prevent him from communicating more quickly with people on the outside,” he said.

There’s also the different process through which this conduct report was handled. In the past, Hasan was brought before a rules infraction board. This time, he dealt with a separate body known as a “serious misconduct panel,” which issues recommendations on offenses that “may require placement in extended restrictive housing.”

Such placements may carry consequences greater than the temporary restrictions he faced before, including long-term and indefinite revocation of privileges.

Hasan’s supporters described the “serious misconduct panel” as a kangaroo court in which no witnesses were allowed to testify, no lawyers were present, evidence was withheld, and new charges and witnesses were introduced.

Although Hasan requested four people testify before the panel, including Turk, prison officials refused to allow any witnesses to testify.

Furthermore, the panel made recommendations for disciplinary action to Wittrup, who wrote the conduct report in the first place. As the Chief of the Bureau of Classification, he has final say on Hasan’s status.

Turk likened the arrangement to “a prosecutor first arguing a case and then putting on judges robes to determine the sentence.”

Hasan was convicted on all five charges. He lost access to the phone—his main point of contact to the outside world—for a year. He also lost his “long-timer” privileges as he is moved to Extended Restrictive Housing 3 (ERH 3).

ODRC describes ERH 3 as “the most restrictive level of [housing] reserved for inmates who constitute the greatest threat to the safety and security of the community and/or a correctional facility.”

Under these circumstances, Hasan never believed he had a chance, but he plans to fight the matter in court as an infringement of his First Amendment rights.

By August 7, supporters said Hasan, who was on hunger strike for several days, was in the infirmary and had refused medical assessment the day before. That hunger strike is now over.

*

The “long-timer” privileges Hasan lost were won through years of coordinated hunger strikes against restrictions placed on the so-called “leaders” of the 1993 Lucasville Uprising.

They included contact visits, more time out of cell, and recreation time with other “long-timers.” Now, he will only be allowed out of his cell for time in a concrete range or recreation cage for five hours per week.

The Lucasville Uprising began as a protest initiated by Muslims, who opposed a tuberculosis skin test that prison officials were planning involving a solution containing phenol, an intoxicant they are forbidden from putting into their bodies.

The protest turned into an uprising, which resulted in 21 demands that encompassed a wide range of abuses they suffered. In particular, officials refused to let Muslim prisoners take an alternative test and threatened to force the injections upon them.

After a standoff the lasted several days, nine prisoners and one corrections officer died and local residents called for steep punishments for those involved. Hasan was accused of ordering the officer’s killing, which he has steadfastly denied, and was sentenced to death.

Greg Curry is another Lucasville defendant who was punished as part of the recent crackdown. Curry was put in solitary confinement, and his entire cell block was ransacked on August 7 because he passed information about Hasan’s conduct report to his contacts on the outside.

Prisoners responded to the attack on Curry with a spontaneous work stoppage. Corrections officers later tried to connect Curry with a knife found on another prisoner and accused him of orchestrating the work stoppage.

In his hearing, the only evidence to support their allegations was that Curry told outside supporters about Hasan. This didn’t break any rules so the rule infractions board dropped the charges against him.

*

“The idea that, in America, people have freedom of speech is kind of laughably absurd,” Turk said, reflecting on how harshly Hasan has been targeted for nothing more than talking about the strike. 

“The alt-right talks about freedom of speech all the time, and their speech is so incredibly protected and respected and cared for by the fascist authorities. Because deep down they share an ideology of white supremacy. But the speech of other people, especially prisoners, is routinely heavily, heavily restricted and blocked,” Turk argued.

“The prison system is an incredibly precarious system,” he contended. “The idea of prisoners all coordinating and knowing and working together can have huge devastating affect on the prison system.”

“They have to restrict [Hasan’s] speech and they have to restrict these ideas from coming in because they are very vulnerable to what would happen if these ideas did spread. Prisoners are ready to go on strike. All they need to know is the date and the fact that it’s real and people are actually going to do it, and that it’s not going to be just them going on strike alone and getting the shit kicked out of them by guards.”

“Knowing that there’s a legit strike going on is going to lead to mass participation. The DRC’s budget can’t handle a prison strike, and the entire state of Ohio can’t handle a prison strike that’s sustained for more than a week or two,” Turk asserted

Organizers have directed phone calls to Ohio prison administrators, demanding they stop targeting Hasan for his organizing and restore his property and privileges in full. They urge supporters to call Director Gary Mohr at 614-387-0588 and email him at drc.publicinfo@odrc.state.oh.us.

“The phone [calls] to support Hasan, putting money on the commissary, and helping him as an individual is really important as he’s in the cross-hairs of the system,” Turk concluded. “But his deepest desire is for the strike to go forward and for the strike to succeed and see the change that he’s trying to see in the system advance.”

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.