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Ohio Prisoners Argue State Uses Solitary Confinement To Retaliate Against Political Advocacy

In September, Mark Hinkston spent five days in the dark at the Toledo Correctional Institution in Toledo, Ohio. 

Hinkston, who goes by the name Mustafa, was locked in a dimly lit cell, which he compared to a bathroom, for five consecutive days without respite. He had no books or anything with which to stimulate his mind.

At night or when it rained, Mustafa said, “You can’t see your hand in front of your face.” 

Mustafa no longer considers himself a citizen of the United States. His studies and experiences in prison have made him a revolutionary and a prison abolitionist. His heroes are George Jackson and Assatta Shakur. P.O.W., the acronym for “prisoner of war,” is tattooed on his face. 

He is one of several incarcerated people at the Toledo Correctional Institution (TOCI) who claim they are dealing with extralegal and torturous isolation as retaliation for their political views and advocacy. Their suffering is part of a broader history of counterinsurgency efforts by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) aimed at quashing dissent and prisoner organizing in the state. 

Solitary For The Long Haul 

Mustafa is no longer in the dark but he remains in solitary confinement, where he has spent the last 18 months. He is currently confined under the Extended Restrictive Housing (ERH) designation. 

One of the other prisoners in ERH is Greg Curry.  Before coming to Toledo, Curry spent 25 years classified as a super maximum security prisoner, mostly at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OST). A little over two years ago, he successfully worked with a lawyer to get transferred to Toledo, where he hoped he could be in general population. 

After a nine-month stint in solitary when he first arrived, Curry was briefly placed in general population until administrators moved him into ERH in July 2020.

ERH is solitary confinement for the long haul. Curry said he spends 23 hours in his cell during the week, 24 on weekends. He was told he will spend two years there. 

Mustafa expects to remain there until 2030, when he will be released from prison altogether. 

Curry views this most recent sentence as retaliation for being an alleged leader of the 1993 Lucasville Uprising. He told Shadowproof he is working on a lawsuit against ODRC because he does not think he will ever be treated fairly by the internal processes. 

The Lucasville Uprising is named for the town in which one of the largest prison uprisings in US history took place, at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. It lasted for 11 days. Hundreds of incarcerated people participated and 10 people–nine prisoners and a corrections officer–died. 

The state alleged Curry and four others were the leaders of the uprising and were responsible for the deaths that occurred. Curry was sentenced to life in prison, which he considers to be a sentence of death by incarceration. 

Curry has spent decades in isolation both as specific punishment for his role in Lucasville and for other incidents where he said he acted in self defense. According to  Curry’s autobiographical zine, “Repression Breeds Resistance,” he had nothing violent on his conduct history prior to the Lucasville Uprising. He also details violent repression he has dealt with at several facilities across Ohio. This included periods of “involuntary hunger strikes,” where guards did not feed him, and time in the “sweat box,” a special cell with all steel walls and no ventilation, where temperatures would reach triple digits routinely in summer. 

Curry is not the only so-called leader of the Lucasville Uprising to be subjected to extended isolation. Imam Siddique Hasan, Jason Robb, and Keith LaMar are all on death row for their alleged role in the uprising, and have spent more than two decades in solitary at OST. LaMar is scheduled for execution in November 2023.

As TruthOut has reported, these three incarcerated activists are denied human contact and access to legal resources, and have only garnered outside attention through hunger strikes covered by the media in the early 2010s. 

Extralegal Punishment

Curry said his most recent sentence to solitary was illegal. He alleges TOCI violated his right to due process by putting him in ERH without conducting a hearing before the Rules Infraction Board (RIB). 

Curry said he was told by the prison staff that a “smelly substance” was found on mail addressed to him. He was accused of trafficking an “intoxicating substance,” not drugs. The distinction is important because, if the prison had accused him of drug trafficking, Curry said they would have had to test the substance. He said what they found could have been perfume or paint. 

When an incarcerated person is accused of violating prison rules in Ohio, there is a process they are supposed to go through. After a conduct report is written, it is read to the prisoner by a hearing officer, who is required to ask if the incarcerated person would like to go before the RIB to present witnesses or other evidence to refute the charges. 

Curry said he met with a hearing officer. In the meeting, the officer sat behind a desk typing on a computer. Curry could not see what was on the screen. He  told the officer he wanted to bring witnesses and fight the charge before the RIB. He thought the officer was going along with him. 

Curry was asked to sign a touchpad connected to the computer, which he had been misled to believe would result in his case going to the RIB.

When Curry went to the RIB panel. he was asked if he wanted to begin his time in ERH immediately. He repeated that he wanted to have the hearing and call his witness. They said the witness, a staff member, was on vacation, so he would need to wait two weeks for him to return. 

After two weeks, he was told he was not going before the RIB, but instead the Serious Misconduct Panel (SMP). 

According to the ODRC’s website, the difference between the SMP and the RIB is that the SMP is used to impose longer, more permanent forms of solitary for those already found guilty of allegations during the RIB process. 

“I’m thinking I’m about to argue my guilt or innocence there and they said, ‘Oh no that part is over. The RIB already found you guilty,’” Curry recounted. 

Curry protested, but the prison staff claimed there was paperwork documenting his agreement to forego attending his RIB hearing. So without realizing it, he had signed away his right to the RIB when he signed the touchpad attached to the officer’s computer. 

He said this made a lawsuit necessary because there is no reason to think this kind of abuse will ever stop. 

“This is a plot, this is a plan of theirs, this is a strategy,” he said. “And it’s not going to stop. When I get out again, they gonna do something else.”

The RIB and SMP procedures were also weaponized against Hasan. In the lead-up to the 2018 National Prison Strike, the ODRC central office charged the Imam with five disciplinary violations relating to so-called rioting, according to the Free Ohio Movement. A security barrier and sandbags were placed outside his cell as he went on hunger strike to protest the charges. 

Jay Ward, who is currently incarcerated at TOCI and spent three weeks on hunger strike in solidarity with the 2018 National Prison Strike, is also dealing with false conduct reports and due process violations. 

In September, he was sent to Limited Privilege Housing (LPH), which is akin to solitary, for allegedly exposing himself to a female nurse. He said the prison violated its own procedure because a CO wrote the incident report as if he had seen what happened, though he did not. 

Ward’s punishment began prior to an RIB hearing, which he said is common, though against policy. 

According to Ward, when contradictions like this are raised by incarcerated people, the prison staff joke that it would be really bad for prisoners if all the rules were followed.  

Mustafa is also dealing with staff misconduct.

In September, he was placed into Local Control (LC), a designation intended for prisoners previously in general population. It allows for sentences in solitary between 30 days and six months with fewer “privileges” than ERH. However, there is supposed to be a hearing before a committee every 30 days to determine if it’s “necessary” for the individual to remain there. 

Mustafa alleges Warden Harold May “decided” incarcerated people in this designation do not need to go before the committee. Mustafa was told at the time that he would remain in LC for six months. 

“All of this is against the law, it’s against policy, and it’s against our human rights,” he said. 

On November 10, Mustafa was able to successfully petition for his return to ERH after highlighting how as an ERH prisoner of level 4 designation, he was ineligible for LC confinement. 

Hunger Strikes 

For Ward, fighting alleged rules violations is extremely important. He’s 30 years old and grew up in prison, having spent the last 15 years incarcerated.

Ward exposed his genitals to prison staff in an incident that took place years ago. He said prison staff now use that incident to fabricate rule violations that he said never took place. Ward said often the only way to protest these false reports is to go on hunger strike. He estimates he has undertaken 15 hunger strikes at TOCI since 2018, the longest lasting 24 days. 

Ward went on hunger strike to protest the most recent alleged violation. He did not eat for about four days and was moved from LPH to suicide watch, which is itself another form of solitary confinement. There, he eventually talked to an RIB officer who had him moved back to general population. 

“They didn’t want to deal with me,” he said. 

Mustafa went on a hunger strike in October to protest the conditions of his confinement in LC. 

He is not sure how long this went on, estimating it lasted between three and four weeks. With each day he became weaker, although he said after a few days he lost the desire to eat. 

He said the prison did not acknowledge the strike, which is against ODRC policy. Eventually, he could see there was no point in continuing. 

“I believe that I’m such an enemy of this state of Ohio that they was hoping [for] me to harm myself in a way I couldn’t come back from,” he said. 

Political Repression 

Mustafa, Ward, and Curry believe incident reports are used as tools for political repression or retaliation against those engaged in advocacy. 

Curry, who considers himself a political prisoner for his inside activism, said ODRC Northern Regional Director David Bobby has it out for him. Bobby was the warden at OST for much of Curry’s time there.

“They sent me [to Toledo] with the understanding behind the scenes that [they should] keep their foot on this guy’s neck,” Curry said. The idea being that, “‘Every time you get a chance put him in the hole, put him in lockup, so that we know he’s not moving around and he’s not getting into anything.’”

Bobby’s signature authorized Curry’s most recent trip to solitary confinement. Curry said he could imagine the former warden smiling.

Curry’s activism did not stop after the Lucasville Uprising. He participates in Black August work stoppages, strikes, and inside political education projects. He has written pieces in support of the Free Alabama Movement and in solidarity with incarcerated people accused of rioting in Maryland.  

Curry has also encouraged prisoners to fight back against state violence. There have been many instances where he has fought back physically against prison guards and other state actors who have threatened his life. He said he believes all life is beautiful and that, as a result, he has an obligation to defend his own life and the lives of those around him. 

“I value humanity in general,” he said. “I’m just in charge of keeping my individual self safe and then everyone else. But the priority has to be my own life because without mine there’s no way that I can help the rest of humanity.”

His political work has never been centered around himself. He said he is fighting for a world where all the walls and gates fall, a world where every incarcerated person will be free. 

Curry said the prison accusing him of something adjacent to drug trafficking is a way to try and distance him from his outside allies, who are ostensibly opposed to drug use and drug dealing. 

“This is just a strategy,” he said.

Mustafa’s radical politics are no secret. Guards sometimes ask him about his P.O.W. face tattoo. He tells them he is still fighting the war, that he is behind enemy lines. The tattoo is part of Mustafa’s daily resistance against the prison, resistance he believes constitutes self defense. 

Mustafa’s inside political work began in the mid 2000s, while confined for a different sentence. He helped to create a prison organization called Brothers Against Oppression (BAO) which practiced a strategy of self defense against ubiquitous and often deadly assaults from guards at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.   

Confrontations between BAO and the COs were often violent. 

“Any time the pigs would get aggressive, or would try to stab a prisoner like they used to do, or whatever they would try to do, just some unjust corrupt shit, we would have a demonstration immediately,” Mustafa said. 

By “demonstration,” Mustafa meant fighting back, throwing stuff at guards, and physically stopping them from entering the cell block. He said many incarcerated people he knew have been murdered by guards and that the self defense strategy worked to counteract state violence. 

ODRC eventually transferred Mustafa to the OST supermax to prevent him from continuing his organizing. Mustafa finished his sentence there, including some additional time for a fight with a guard where he alleges he acted in self defense, and was released in 2011, but returned to prison in 2013.

Beyond the hunger strikes, Ward’s activism extends to social media, where his outside supporters post about abuse he faces and often names COs. He said many of the COs have a grudge against him, particularly because of his activity on social media. 

“Anything they can do to make me look bad or get me out of the area that they are in, they’ll do it,” he said. 

Torture by Other Names 

For Curry, solitary confinement demands he find ways to stimulate his mind. 

“[I end up] trying to find something to do everyday to make the day go away,” he said. 

The United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules stipulate that more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. Mustafa is aware of this international benchmark and believes he and all others in isolation are being tortured by ODRC. 

“It’s pure torture and over a period of time it has the ability to diminish the things inside an individual that makes him a human being,” he said. “Guys begin to act like animals locked in a cage, only knowing how to communicate through loud noises, only knowing how to express themselves by throwing feces and urine and doing things that a normal human being would never do.” 

Mustafa said the mental health resources available to people are totally corrupt and do not promote care. 

“They actually tell them, you have to harm yourself to get any attention, any treatment, anything–you have to harm yourself,” Mustafa said. Ward echoed this claim.

In his article, “Mental Health, Abuse, and Neglect At Toledo Correctional Institution,” Mustafa recalls telling prison staff he was having suicidal ideations last fall. He said they laughed in his face and did nothing.

 Mustafa said this happened to a friend of his named Duncan, who died by suicide in 2020 in the same unit where Mustafa is now. 

Duncan’s death was listed as an incident without a perpetrator, but Mustafa believes the prison’s mental health staff are responsible.  

“They allowed him to do [this] for the sake of seeing if he would,” he said. “These tyrants here at the Toledo Correctional Institution feel that prisoners’ lives do not matter at all.”

In ERH, Mustafa said police terror is omnipresent and guards often enter the unit decked out in storm trooper gear. There are regular strip searches and destructive cell searches, and mace is often used.

Ward is suing ODRC over an assault that happened when he was in ERH in 2018. He said guards stormed into the cell while he was listening to music on headphones. They released a full canister of oleoresin capsicum gas and dislocated his shoulder. 

Mustafa said the combination of assaults from guards and the years in isolation have given him and many others Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said political consciousness has been his primary source of motivation to keep fighting. 

“I have to struggle everyday to maintain my humanity,” he said. “The reason I hold onto my humanity is my level of awareness, my level of awareness of the system and what they are trying to do to the individuals trapped inside these modern day plantations.”

Joergen Ostensen

Joergen Ostensen

Joergen Ostensen is a freelance journalist based in Mid-Coast Maine and New York City.