When Lucasville rose up

April 17, 2018

Twenty-five years ago this month, prisoners at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, rose up in rebellion. Lasting 11 days--one of the longest prison rebellions in U.S. history--some 450 inmates defied the prison officials' exploitation of racial tensions among inmates and joined together in a protest against overcrowding, abuse from guards and inhumane conditions.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan is one of "Lucasville Five"--a group of men railroaded onto death row for the killing of a white prison guard during the rebellion. Here, he recounts for Tyler Barton the story of the revolt and its lasting impact.

THIS WEEK marks the 25th anniversary of the Lucasville prison uprising. Can you tell me what events led to the uprising? What were you and the other prisoners trying to accomplish?

THE LUCASVILLE Uprising happened from April 11 to April 21, 1993. Along with the Atlanta Federal Prison Uprising, it is recorded as the longest prison uprising in U.S. history.

What was going on at Lucasville was that you had a long train of abuses. Guards were assaulting and murdering prisoners without being penalized to the full extent of the law. At best, some might have lost their jobs and gone to another institution, or they filed an appeal with their union and got their job back. Guards had free range with prisoners.

There were prisoners who came from other institutions, and they were young, primarily from the inner city. Lucasville is a primarily white community. The people who worked at this institution had no experience dealing with inner-city people of color. It wasn't going to work.

They would lie and say a prisoner in shackles kicked them to justify beating them senseless. Just like the cops out in society, they have to find a way to justify using such force. This is the backdrop to what happened in Lucasville.

Imam Siddique Abduallah Hasan
Imam Siddique Abduallah Hasan

Finally, it reached the point where the prison authorities under the command of Warden Arthur Tate Jr.--known to the convict body as "King Arthur"--decided to administer the Mantoux tuberculosis test. The problem is that the test contains phenol, an alcoholic substance. For Muslims, it is forbidden to consume alcohol, to buy alcohol or to be involved with alcohol in any form or fashion.

We were saying to Warden Tate, "Look, we belong to a valid faith group. You trying to impose this is an infringement of our rights. We have no problem taking a test. It is a public health issue, and we can relate to that. All we are asking is that you be diplomatic and allow us to take an alternative test."

Warden Tate sent for myself and four other Muslims to meet with him, but only three of us could attend because two of them were in confinement. Warden Tate opened the meeting by saying that according to his staff, 150 prisoners refused to take the test, and he would not tolerate this in his institution.

After some heated discussion, we told him that we did not plan to take the test. One of the other Muslims in this meeting said that if we were forced to take the test, then we would be absolved. The prison chaplain, making a joke at our expense, said, "How much force has to be used?"

We brought up the Tuskeegee Institute tests, and we made it very clear that we weren't going to take this test. When we left the meeting, it was a hostile environment.

I want to emphasize, too, that we brought up the U.S. Supreme Court case Turner v. Safley. What the Supreme Court said in that ruling was this: Before you deny a prisoner their Constitutional rights, there must be certain things that are considered. Specifically, what type of infringement would it cause on the prison authorities to accommodate the prisoners and their requests? Was there an alternative means of exercising the interests of the prison?

There were other avenues. We made it clear that we were willing to undergo other tests or to be quarantined.

Being a hard-as-nails warden, Tate's position was that no inmate was going to dictate to him how to run his institution. That was the mistake in his way of thinking. We weren't dictating anything to him. It was the Supreme Court that had already dictated to him and every prison authority what would be the standard for infringing on a prisoner's Constitutional right. He got caught up in a personality clash and ego-tripping.

What the Muslims wanted to do was to have a peaceful protest to have the issue taken out of Warden Tate's hands and put in the hands of the director of the Central Office in Columbus. What was intended to be a peaceful protest by the Muslims turned into a full-scale rebellion because you had prisoners who had been jumped by staff, who had their cells shaken down and their stuff thrown all around, their holy materials on the ground.

When the guards came out of the cells, it was like a hurricane hit, so people had a lot of animosity built up. When they saw officers leaving their posts, it turned into the large-scale rebellion.

WHAT DO you want people to know about your case?

WHAT I can say is this: Prisoners are demonized as the most low-down human beings on the face of the Earth. People don't take a second look when they hear that we supposedly did something. If you're Black, that is a strike against you. If you're poor, that's another strike against you. If you're a prisoner, that's another strike against you. And if you're Muslim in the Islamophobic climate we live in, that's another strike against you.

Sometimes, people don't look a second time and take for granted that a person is actually guilty because you're hearing it in the courtroom. I can say without any hesitation that I am entirely innocent of the crime the state claims I committed. But because I was the spiritual head of the Sunni Muslims in the prison, they had to make an example.

Justice was not done in my case. You have witnesses who took the stand facing charges of their own--murder, assault, attempted murder. They were offered immunity to testify against me. These people testified that I was the mastermind of the riot, that I was the puppet master, that I determined who lived and who died.

The state secretly recorded some conversations between prisoners when they talked about killing guards if our demands weren't met, which were to get the lights on, get the water on and get the police up out of the tunnels. They were worried that the police were going to blow up the tunnels and kill people in the process. They said I chaired the meeting where these discussions took place.

When you listen to the recording of this secret meeting--and I have a copy of the recording in my own possession--my voice isn't even heard. When the chief investigator from the Ohio State Highway Patrol testified in court, he said, "No, Hasan's voice isn't on the tape, but he is still there."

When you're Black, you're a prisoner and you're Muslim, you have three strikes against you. When you are being tried in Cincinnati--the death penalty capital of Ohio--it didn't take a lot. Just that I was being indicted and the prosecutor put up some flimsy evidence was enough.

I FOUND it really inspiring to learn about how the prisoners built interracial solidarity during the uprising despite the intense racial divisions inside the prison beforehand. Can you talk about how that happened?

THE HOLY Koran tells us that he created us all from Adam and Eve, but as their descendants had more and more children, they moved into different places. Allah tells us to get to know one another, not to despise one another.

So when we come down to the races or people from different looks and pigmentation, all that is just identification. For the Muslims, it was never a problem.

You have to understand that Lucasville was a racial environment. The authorities and the guards promoted racism. They want to play the game of divide and conquer. They want to pit whites against Blacks and vice versa. As long as prisoners or people are fighting among themselves, they wouldn't join together and fight he common enemy: the system or the government.

During the early stages of the uprising, there were prisoners who were assaulted, and almost all of those prisoners were white. That created fear among the white prisoners, but after doing the research, it turned out that those who were assaulted were known snitches, working for the prison authorities, and they just happened to be white. It could have been anyone.

When we saw this, we Muslims got together with two representatives of the Aryan Brotherhood and went through the hallways, the gym and the cellblock announcing that this wasn't a racial thing. It was us against the administration. That calmed things down.

The tension was still so thick that you could cut it with a knife. We had to do something to clear the air. Someone came up with a suggestion for the Muslims to perform our prayers down in the gym, so we went to the gym and made an announcement on the bullhorn.

We said, "Look, we are getting ready to say our prayers. We ask that you all be respectful and stay quiet, so we can make our prayers." So we had our prayers, and it was so quiet. You could hear a pin drop.

Before it was so loud, and tension was thick. So when we got done with our prayer, the brother who got on the bullhorn said, "We have Christians, Jews, Catholics and other people here. This is a very trying time for us all, and we don't even know what the next minute holds. They could storm us any minute, and we could lose our lives in the process. This is time to have congregation prayer, and we encourage people from the same faith to come pray together."

Then we said, "The same respect you all gave us Muslims, we ask that you give the same respect to all of these other guys."

That was a turning point in breaking up a lot of that tension, and from that point on, the prisoners started working together. That's when you started seeing the signs about "convict unity": Black and white together.

THERE HAVE been strict limitations on the media's in-person access to you and other prisoners from the Lucasville Uprising. Some of that has changed recently due to a lawsuit filed on your behalf, but the media is still not allowed to meet in person with you or others on death row. What's changed, and why is this important?

IT HAS always been the prison authority's position that nobody who was convicted as a result of the Lucasville prison uprising would have access to the media. That was the result of a Columbus Dispatch reporter wanting to meet with me and other prisoners, but [Reginald] Wilkerson--who was the African American director--said that nobody associated with Lucasville would be able to meet with the media.

The state had opportunities to tell their side from day one. When the media would call, the state would tell the media the correctional officers' phone numbers and addresses. They wanted their story to be told.

They wanted our story to be swept under the rug because people would have the opportunity to see that what the state said was fictitious. They didn't want us to tell the story because of "unanticipated content."

They would ask the media, "What do you want to speak to them about?" They wanted to know what we would talk about, but it was our case. We're allowed to talk about our case, but they would never grant us that opportunity. They knew that we were going to talk about uprisings. Then they said it would create undue hardship on the family members of the victims.

What the court recently said was that for the state to issue a blanket statement saying they would deny people their rights based on content and the impact it would have on the victim's families was unconstitutional. They have to allow the media to meet with people in general population. The key is that we aren't in general population.

Before we filed the lawsuit, the prison authorities described someone in a restrictive housing unit as somebody who was in their cell for 22 hours or more per day, but we are out of our cell for four hours per day. That means that we didn't fall under this restriction, and technically speaking, we were general population.

Once we filed the lawsuit, they changed the rules to define restricted housing and placed us in that category. Now we can't have in-person access to the media. They manipulated the system after the filing of the initial court documents. They changed the rules in the middle of the game so we could be denied access.

The state has demonized us. They've made us out to be some of the most low-down, dangerous people in the prison system, and they need us to be confined. We can't be trusted, so we need to be in solitary confinement.

If we had the opportunity to be on national television or where people could actually hear us, people would see that the way the prison authorities have portrayed us is not the actual picture they are seeing.

So it's a situation where the state is trying to define who we are, but the reality is that we are in a better position to define ourselves. They're trying to speak on our behalf, but they aren't our advocates or representatives. That's been the whole problem.

DESPITE ALL of these restrictions, you and others who participated in the Lucasville uprising have continued to actively organize across the prison walls. What can people on the outside of the prisons do to build solidarity and organize with you, the people who are incarcerated inside the prison?

I ALWAYS say this: The government that is oppressing us behind enemy lines is the same government that is oppressing people out there in society. There aren't two governments. They're one and the same.

People experiencing modern-day slavery in the prisons aren't being compensated for the work they do--pennies on the hour, in some states, nothing at all.

This is a problem that exists in society, too. People are living paycheck to paycheck. They are enduring starvation wages just to survive, send their children to school, put a roof over their heads. So just like prisoners are asking for decent wages, people out there are asking for livable wages, for $15 an hour.

I think that once we realize that our struggles are one and the same, we aren't going to allow the powers that be to pit us against people out in society. We're going to unify and deal with this.

Now it makes absolutely no sense to say that we love our children, that children are our future, but the same people who are educating our future, our teachers, aren't even provided the monetary compensation to have a decent living. There should never be a situation where they aren't provided livable wages. Again, they're fighting their struggle, and we commend them. If there is something we can do, we stand with them.

Corporate America sees prisons as a business. It's not their children, but they stand to make millions and millions of dollars. It's no different from a person being in McDonald's or Burger King or some other franchise. They see more opportunities to make more money, to create more businesses--and as a state, it's just one big business. That's how they see prisoners--as an opportunity to make more money, and that's why we have mass incarceration.

We know that Rome wasn't built in a day, and that this is a protracted struggle. Still, we're keeping our eyes on the prize. We're going to continue to fight against classism, racism, mass incarceration...and the list goes on and on.

YOU JUST mentioned the ongoing teacher rebellion. I've seen a lot of signs on social media from the protests about how the states that spend the most on prisons spend the least on education. How do you see struggles outside the prisons being tied to struggles inside the prison system?

ONE THING people need to understand is that when you're taking on the powers that be, be it the government or whatever, we need to understand that the power of the people is greater than that of the people in power. They know that, but sometimes, we don't understand that.

So when I was speaking about the teachers, some of them don't even have the money to put a decent roof over their heads. No teacher should have to experience that. We need get from a starvation wage to a livable wage--not only for teachers, but for every person. Health care should be a right for all people. Having a decent living wage should be a right.

We're talking about the richest country on the face of the Earth, but we still have working people who have to struggle to make ends make. People are one paycheck away from being put out of their house. And some of them are teaching our future, the children.

If they're feeling down and out, under stress, that the system is being manipulated so that they're constantly worried about getting their next paycheck, they don't need to be under that level of stress. Their minds need to be clear and sharp in order to prepare the next generation, the people who are going to be leading our society.

What we're saying is that the same system that is manipulating them and not giving them their just due is the same system that is manipulating us behind enemy lines. This is about class--the haves and the have-nots. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting prison. Many of the poor people who are getting prison, they are not going to prison because they commit crimes.

There are so many innocent people in prison. If you have the choices of starving, or selling drugs or stealing, this is a false choice. I am saying that we need to change the circumstances, and we will change the crimes in the community. So long as you don't change the circumstances, the problem is always going to be there.

At the same time, an incredible amount of money is spent on the military and police. The powers that be want a strong military, they want a strong police force, Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, National Guard. They want their law enforcement because without it, the people would rise up, burn down the establishment--people would physically take over.

So long as they're taking care of their first line of defense, the law enforcement agencies, they know that they're alright. That's why the cops and the military can get away with so much. They're never going to prosecute them to the full extent because the last thing they need is a mutiny from police officers believing they're not being taken care of.

COULD YOU say something briefly about what you want people to think about when working to push our struggles forward?

WE WILL never be able to get true justice in the Lucasville cases or other cases going on around the country with cops killing people, etcetera, until we can actually change this system. And how do we change it? We start from the grassroots up.

We have to continue to push forward in the spirit of our predecessors trying to bring about true revolutionary changes. We must dare to struggle and dare to win. As they say: All power belongs to the people, and it is the people who must change the system!

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