Ohio Prisons Uphold Year-Long Communications Ban Against Incarcerated Activist Who Supported National Prison Strike
18 Oct 2018 Brian Sonenstein Brian Sonenstein
Ohio state prison officials denied an appeal by Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan against the one-year restriction placed on his phone and email use after he spoke publicly in support of the 2018 prison strike.
The restrictions—and the case that led to them—are yet another example of the lengths prison officials will go to police the political speech of prisoners and punish those who express support for protest, particularly the prison strike movement.
Hasan is prohibited from making phone calls or using email until August 13, 2019, unless the warden intervenes.
He is currently on death row in connection with the 1993 rebellion known as the Lucasville Uprising, which began as a protest by Muslim prisoners against an attempted forced medical procedure by prison officials that violated their religious beliefs. As such, he is already subject to significant isolation. By forbidding him from using phone and email—his two primary connections to the outside world—that isolation will intensify.
Hasan denied the charges against him, rebutting them and criticizing the disciplinary process in an appeal filed August 22. He maintained the restrictions will not deter him from speaking out for human rights for incarcerated people and exercising his right to speech and protest.
On September 27, his appeal was denied with little-to-no explanation.
Shadowproof previously reported on the retaliation Hasan faced for speaking in support of the national prison strike. Since then, new details from the hearing, including new allegations against him, have emerged.
Hasan’s case was heard by what is known as a “Serious Misconduct Panel” (SMP), an administrative disciplinary body. It is supposed to be more rigorous than the the prison’s “Rules Infraction Board,” which has handled his conduct reports in the past.
The SMP is authorized to rule on misconduct that qualifies a prisoner for a more restrictive housing placement. As a result of the proceedings, Hasan was moved to one such housing unit.
The way the process unfolded led Hasan’s supporters to characterize the SMP as a “kangaroo court.”
Hasan was accused by the SMP of violating five rules for prisoner conduct, which included rioting or encouraging a riot, engaging in or encouraging a protest or work stoppage, conducting business operations with anyone outside the prison without permission, and using phone or mail in furtherance of criminal activity.
None of the witnesses Hasan requested were permitted to testify at his hearing. He was not given access to the complete record of evidence or charges against him, so that he could prepare a defense. In fact, new charges were levied in the course of his hearing.
Furthermore, there was a conflict of interest at the core of the proceedings: the official who initiated the charges against Hasan—Brian Wittrup—participated in the hearing via telephone, and as chief of the prison classification bureau, he ultimately oversaw the rejection of Hasan’s appeal.
Beyond the formal restrictions brought by the SMP, some of Hasan’s supporters were blacklisted from visiting and sending money to anyone incarcerated in Ohio state prisons.
“The fabricated charges in my conduct report, the procedural errors in my SMP hearing, and the dirty games played by all parties involved are so egregious and a violation of my due process rights that not even returning my case to a new SMP for a rehearing will cure and/or correct the violations of applicable procedures and the vindictiveness shown toward my person,” Hasan wrote in his appeal.
“Thus, the only legal remedy is for my case to be dismissed with prejudice; for Brian Wittrup, Deputy Chief Inspector Paul Shoemaker, and all other ODRC [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction] officials to leave me alone and allow me to do the remainder of my time without being harassed due to the 1993 Lucasville Uprising,” Hasan said. “My request is reasonable.”
Wittrup alleged Hasan attempted 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.”
SMP Chair Deputy Warden Keith Foley believed Hasan did this by “referring to the 2016 prison strike/work stoppage and violent events that occurred in our nation’s prisons.” He promoted “work stoppage” through telephone conversations with people who were outside of the prison.
Specifically, officials pointed to this sentence Hasan said on the phone: “Two years later, the decision has been that from August 21 to September 9, there is going to be another national work stoppage, and it entails many more things than what happened in 2016.” He added, “We intend to put up stiff resistance.”
The SMP cited another sentence from a speech Hasan gave over the phone to protesters outside the Supreme Court. He said, “I was also talking about this year from August 21 to September 9, the national work stoppage, hunger strike, boycotting the commissary, the whole nine [yards].”
Shadowproof repeatedly requested phone transcripts the SMP cited as evidence that Hasan was fomenting a riot. Ohio prison officials categorically refused to provide them, even in redacted form, citing exemptions in state open records laws.
Intercepted mail regarding the prison strike from one of Hasan’s supporters, Ben Turk, was also cited as evidence in the report. This refers to the Fire Inside endorsement of the action [PDF], which outlined its demands, tactics, and other recent events within prisons that motivated the action.
Notably, the prison strike advanced four tactics: hunger strike, work stoppage, sit-ins, or boycotts—none of which involved anything like a riot. This tactical limitation advanced by organizers was observed by prisoners throughout the strike and at no point did Hasan state or insinuate support for any riotous tactics.
Wittrup agreed as much during the hearing, according to Hasan, who said the officer “stipulated that I was ‘not involved in rioting, or encouraging others to riot; however, just like the 1993 Lucasville Uprising was supposed to have been a peaceful protest, it ended up turning into a full-scale rebellion.” Shadowproof reached out to Wittrup about this “stipulation,” but he did not respond to our request for comment.
Ohio officials have yet to acknowledge Shadowproof’s requests for a transcript of the hearing.
Wittrup further alleged Hasan attempted to conduct “a business operation with an outside civilian for profit and without specific permission in writing from the warden.” The “business operation” involved a $250 donation from the Jericho Movement Local 8751 Union for a live radio interview about the film, “Shadow of Lucasville.”
The SMP also alleged he misused “his JPay privilege by answering an anti-Aramark Food Service organizer’s JPay [email] to him,” which asked him to recruit other inmates to “stop Aramark from being used at the University of Cincinnati until they stop feeding inmates incarcerated in Ohio.”
Aramark has come under fire for several years for food shortages, contaminated food supplies, and ‘improper relations’ between employees and inmates in Ohio and other states.
According to Hasan, he successfully protested Aramark’s service in the past: in January 2017, Kamala Kelkar reported for PBS that Hasan went on “hunger strikes because he said Aramark food was cold and the quantities were half the appropriate serving. Prison authorities agreed to address the issues after a month of starvation, he said.”
The Aramark allegation in particular was not raised in the initial conduct report against Hasan, but instead was leveled in the middle of the hearing. As such, Hasan was unable to prepare a defense.
Since this Aramark incident was not listed in the initial conduct report, Shadowproof sought an additional conduct report for this alleged offense. Ohio prison officials did not provide documents or acknowledge whether they existed before it was time for publication.
Hasan requested five witnesses appear at his disciplinary hearing—Ben Turk, Steven Kirschenbaum, radio host Vanessa Sparks (aka Queen Tahiyrah), and death penalty abolitionist Abe Bonowitz. All were “not allowed due to relevancy, unavailability, and security reasons.”
Shadowproof reached out to each of them to ask if they were contacted by the SMP to testify. Ben Turk said he was never notified Hasan had requested him as a witness. (The others did not respond prior to publication, but Shadowproof will update the story as more information becomes available.)
It is notable that Wittrup was allowed to participate in the hearing via phone because Hasan’s witnesses could have done the same, but they were not given the opportunity.
Furthermore, Wittrup testified in the hearing, even though, as Hasan’s appeal notes, he said in charging documents that he did not “wish to have input into the disciplinary proceedings.” Hasan did not ask him to testify either.
Hasan claimed the SMP chairman only had a few questions for Wittrup. But that didn’t stop Wittrup from freely offering “input, critiques, and/or objections” to Hasan’s testimony on his own throughout the hearing.
“He was granted free reign to express whatever he desired, and the SMP, his subordinates, swallowed the hook, line, and sinker,” Hasan argued. “Thus, he was not on the telephone as a witness but as an adversary and critic during my entire testimony/hearing.”
“My conviction was already ingrained in the sand,” he said, adding, “I was provided the bare form of a hearing without any substance.”
Hasan described the SMP’s “first deliberation” on his case:
The panel left the room to deliberate and the chairman was still talking to Mr. Wittrup on the telephone in the corridor but outside my hearing. After about 20 minutes, the panel returned to the room to notify me that they were going to continue with my hearing before deliberating [again]. That’s when Mr. Wittrup instructed them to share more of the evidence being used against me. That’s when the chairman started reading more of what I allegedly said over the phone. I asked the chairman to allow me to see what he was reading. Mr. Wittrup instructed him to let me read typed versions of the alleged phone conversation, but to be careful not to share with me their confidential work.“Lo and behold!,” Hasan exclaimed. “[SMP Chair] Mr. Foley gave me some of the wrong papers,” including the SMP’s ruling on the case they supposedly were in the process of hearing. “These documents had already found me guilty and the punishments I were to receive,” he said.
“So where did the two SMP persons get this information from other than Mr. Wittrup himself? He simply typed up, in advance, the disposition and supplemental disposition of the [RIB] and gave it to the SMP members to sign-off on.”
The SMP indicated they did not believe Hasan’s defense because, “Inmate did not seem credible.”
Beyond the formal restrictions imposed by the SMP, Hasan, his supporters, and other Lucasville survivors have faced other forms of retaliation. Three of Hasan’s most active supporters—Joyce Jones, Ben Turk, and another supporter who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation—were restricted from visiting Hasan and sending him money. The anonymous individual is the only one who eventually had their access reinstated after seeking the help of an attorney.
Jones, who has visited Hasan for years, was kicked out five minutes into a visit with Hasan on September 20. Later, she received a letter from ODRC announcing the restrictions. The letter is dated September 11 and states Jones had until September 18 to respond to the decision. She received the letter on September 28.
Jones was permanently banned from visiting Hasan or any other prisoners in the Ohio system. She was accused of “money laundering” because her name was mentioned in a conversation Hasan had with Steven Kirschbaum about making a donation for a speaking engagement. In a transcript excerpt of the conversation included in the initial conduct report, Kirschbaum refers to the $250 payment as a donation and also mentions collecting donations at the event.
ODRC made clear in its letter to Jones that the issue was not simply that Hasan received money for a speaking engagement, but for one “supporting the nationwide prison strike.”
“Inmate [Hasan] admits to being a leader, attempting to organize a prison strike in Ohio,” the letter reads. “Your involvement in this activity could jeopardize the security of the facility. This warrants a permanent visiting restriction. Restriction are enforced at all state facilities.”
She appealed the restriction, but her appeal was denied by prison officials on October 10.
“Since when is it a violation to be mentioned in a phone conversation?” Jones reacted. “Plus, they can check the kiosk records. I didn’t deposit any money after said phone conversation.” She added maybe it would make sense for ODRC to restrict her ability to send Hasan money, if anything, but not to bar her from visiting anyone incarcerated in Ohio prisons.
The anonymous supporter received a letter informing them that they were also banned from visiting prisons in the state. Like Jones, they were given seven days to reply, but the letter had a date several days before it was postmarked. They contacted an attorney, who wrote to ODRC protesting the matter, and their visitation access was restored. They’re still barred from putting money on Hasan’s account. ODRC has not provided this individual with an explanation for this restriction.
Ben Turk said he never received a notice about visitation restriction and contacted prison officials, who said they would re-send his letter as well as a letter to those he visits in prisons around the state. (He did not think those individuals had been informed of the restriction.)
Turk attempted to schedule visits on September 13. “When the scheduling officer heard my name, he got weird,” Turk recalled. “I could hear him shuffling papers. He asked me about my visiting history but didn’t find any restrictions. So he let me schedule the visits.”
About ten minutes later, a sergeant called back to tell Turk he was restricted from visiting. “I asked when the restriction happened and he paused, then said September 11. I believe he made it up off the top of his head at that moment.”
Amidst these visitation restrictions, another Lucasville Uprising defendant received terrible news on his case. Keith LaMar, who was sentenced to death after the uprising based on unreliable informant testimony, received notice that a motion requesting his execution date had been filed by Hamilton County prosecutor Mark Peipmeier.
LaMar has joined Hasan and another Lucasville defendant named Greg Curry in multiple hunger strikes and actions in the past. But LaMar had intentionally avoided involvement with the nationwide strike to focus on writing and dealing with his death penalty conviction.
“Getting this news on Keith’s case amidst all the bullshit they’re doing to Hasan was devastating,” Turk said. “It made missing those visits even harder to swallow.”
Curry argued the decision was about “silencing our message at a time when more people are becoming aware of the injustice of the 1993 prison riot and the treatment of us ever since, including placing me and Hasan in the hole during Black August.”
He was placed in solitary confinement and had his cell block ransacked when Hasan first received his conduct report because Curry told his contacts on the outside about it.
Other prisoners responded with a spontaneous work stoppage. Officers tried to link Curry with a knife found on another prisoner and accused him of orchestrating the work stoppage. But the only evidence raised at his hearing was his communication with people on the outside.
After a few days of isolation, the disciplinary body released him without charges.
Prison officials have used the Lucasville Uprising repeatedly the last 20 years as a pretext to isolate Hasan and other survivors, preventing them from speaking to the press about the incident, the prosecution of their cases, or efforts to organize for human rights.
Hasan and others are involved in a lawsuit challenging restrictions placed on their communication with journalists following the rebellion. Hasan has given many interviews over the years without incident, but was punished multiple times and harshly in 2016 for his support and vocal advocacy for the prison strike that year—including for his participation in an episode of a Netflix documentary series about the Lucasville Uprising.
That Hasan’s alleged misconduct was handled through the SMP, and not the Rules Infraction Board as in the past, is significant in terms of the consequences he faces and as an escalation of repression he has faced for advocating for human rights and prison resistance. The SMP is ostensibly a more serious disciplinary body and has the authority to change Hasan’s security classification and the privileges that come with them.
The SMP claimed that Hasan identified as a “leader and spokesperson,” which meant he qualified for placement in Extended Restrictive Housing Three (ERH3). Extended Restrictive Housing involves isolating prisoners in their cell 22 hours or more per day for 30 days or longer.
According to the rules, prisoners qualify for this housing if they have “led organized, participated in or incited a serious disturbance or riot (or attempted to commit any of these acts) that resulted in, or was planned/intended to result in, the taking of a hostage, significant property damage, interruption of vital institutional services, physical harm, loss of control of a facility/unit, or loss of life.”
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.”
“Inmates are generally housed in a single cell with no congregate activity,” ODRC policy states.
Hasan will be given a step-down plan and will be re-evaluated within 90 days, which would be November, at which point his security level may be reduced.
As in the past, Hasan received his conduct report and was placed on lockdown on a Friday afternoon, stalling outside supporters ability to respond or get information over the weekend. Hasan began a hunger strike that day and maintained it until August 8, at which point he stopped due to serious stomach pains.
Supporters with Central Ohio Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organized daily phone zaps in solidarity with Hasan and two hunger strikers at Toledo Correctional Institution. The actions targeted wardens at both facilities and ODRC director Gary Mohr at his home phone number.
After the nationwide strike, members of the Pittsburgh Anarchist Black Cross committed to supporting Hasan with visits and solidarity actions.
Hasan plans to keep challenging the restrictions.
Ben Turk contributed to this report.