March 31, 2005
Petro calls on Supreme Court to support super-max prison policy
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — In a case with potential ramifications for more than two-dozen super-maximum security prisons across the nation, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro on Wednesday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to validate the state’s procedures for assigning prisoners to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.
A federal court earlier found the policies unconstitutional.
Opponents say being assigned to the highly restrictive prison can drive a person insane, underscoring the need to make sure inmates are not sent there unnecessarily.
Petro told the high court that corrections officials need the flexibility to take a wide range of information into account as they decide which prisoners are the most dangerous to other inmates and guards.
These “worst of the worst” are sent to the penitentiary, the state’s maximum-security lockup, where they are held in solitary confinement.
Inmates in the 500-bed prison, which opened in 1998, are allowed to leave their 90-square foot cells for just five one-hour periods each week. They lose any chance for parole and are not told when they might be returned to a lower security prison.
California and Illinois are among 19 states with super-max prisons that supported Ohio’s arguments in the case, which was heard by ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the other eight justices.
In his first appearance before the nation’s highest court, Petro said the state appealed the case in order to “really have the ability to effectively manage its prisons and to assure there is safety for prison employees and obviously to secure the prisons for the safety of the inmates.”
“To do that, there needs to be a great deal of flexibility in making predictive decisions about who goes into maximum security,” he said.
Attorney Jules Lobel, representing the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, argued against the state’s policy.
“To me the basic issue here is can you put a man in very long-term solitary confinement for years and years and years without giving him adequate reasons for why you’re doing it ... and without telling him what he has to do to get out,” he said. “There are super-max facilities all around the country and it’s a very serious problem.”
The CCR along with the ACLU of Ohio initiated the class action suit against the state in January 2001.
In 2002, a U.S. District Court judge in Ohio ruled that the state violated prisoners’ due process by not giving inmates adequate information or opportunity to be heard before decisions to send them to the super-max.
The district court ordered the state to provide prisoners with written notice of all grounds believed to justify placement in the facility, and a summary of supporting evidence, among other requirements.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati affirmed the decision last year.
Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to Ohio’s request to review the ruling.
During much of Wednesday’s hour-long hearing, the justices grilled Petro and Lobel on the content of information provided to prisoners before they are sent to the super-max.
The state adopted a new policy guiding transfers to the prison in January 2002, but it has not been implemented.
Lobel argued that both the old and new policies are deficient.
Prisoners often receive “very vague reasons” for being classified as Level 5, resulting in transfer to the super-max, he said.
Petro agreed that when prisoners are notified they may be reclassified, the information they receive is “very general in its nature.” But he said following the requirements laid down by the district court would “destroy the opportunity for the state and its prison officials to have the kind of flexibility they need.”
The U.S. Department of Justice supported Ohio in the case.
The court is expected to rule in June.