One of the longest prison riots in U.S. history forced changes to Ohio’s prison system

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — Thirty years ago this month, one of the longest prison riots in U.S. history finally ended after 11 days. And when it was over, one guard and nine inmates at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville were dead.

That bloody riot forced changes in Ohio’s prisons.

 It was Easter Sunday in 1993. Mike Hensley was working at the Lucasville lockup when a disturbance erupted, forcing him and a handful of other guards to take refuge under a stairwell.  

“It took a long time to dawn on us that hey, is a full-scale riot,” he said.  

 Darrold Clark was among those taken hostage. 

“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “There was quite a few times throughout the riot that there were situations and developments that were occurring that I thought I would not make it out.”  

Some didn’t. The three gangs inside the prison had taken charge and started executing inmates they believed to be snitches. Jackie Bowers’ brother George Skatzes was an inmate there. 

 “I’m freaking out, you know,” Bowers said.  “You’ve got a brother down what is going on? Yea, those were some hard days.”  

Meanwhile, state leaders were handling the riot from Columbus. Current Gov. Mike DeWine was then-Gov. George Voinovich’s lieutenant governor, and served as his point person during the ordeal.

“The prisoners were listening to the radio, the prisoners were getting TV,” DeWine said. “And so anything it was was put out, they got.”

Skatzes was one of the so-called “Lucasville Five” — the ringleaders and served as a spokesman for the rioting inmates on a broadcast that aired during the riot on a local radio station. 

“We are not going to bow down, we are not going to give up. We are going to remain no matter what they put on us. If we die we die,” Skatzes said in the broadcast.   

As the riot dragged on, National Guard members were brought in to join state law enforcement. Mike Dawson was Voinovich’s press secretary at the time. 

“The FBI had very sophisticated listening equipment that they had drilled up into the floor of the room where they were doing the negotiations from, so we could hear what was being said,” Dawson said. 

Many wondered why state leaders didn’t just give the order to storm the prison, especially after corrections officer Bobby Vallandingham was strangled by the inmates a few days into the riot. DeWine answers that question. 

“The governor, to his credit, resisted that and stayed focused on how do we protect the lives, how do we save the most lives,” he said. 

Former WHIO television reporter Jim Otte said the local and national journalists who had descended on the prison weren’t given much to report. 

“Because not much information came from official sources,” he said. “We tried. We tried and tried. We tried to get whatever we could see from different angles.”  

Former WTVN radio reporter John Remy found a unique angle.  

“I climbed a tree one afternoon for the 3 o’clock news,” he said.

 The media blackout helped fuel public rumors about inflated numbers of dead prisoners, stories of torture and other false reports. The lawyer negotiating for the inmates said they believed the state had planted the stories. In hindsight, DeWine suggested the prisons department should have given the media more, yet careful, information.

After 11 long days, the inmates surrendered during a live, seven-hour-long broadcast on a Cincinnati-area TV station. A few days later, reporters who had been kept in the dark, including Otte, were taken inside the prison to survey the damage.  

“Everything was destroyed,” he said. “I remember walking down the hallway seeing written in what might have been paint, it might have been blood, in big letters, CONVICT UNITY, and a chill went through me.”

Reggie Wilkinson, the prisons department director at that time, said there were several factors leading to the riot. A new warden with new rules. Tuberculosis testing that upset Muslim inmates. And severe overcrowding. 

“We had probably double the capacity of a maximum security prison,” he said. “The way it was constructed was like a medium security physical plant than a maximum security.”

Lucasville has changed. Today there’s more protection for guards. Inmates get more contact with family members. Prisoners used to get one phone call to family around Christmas time. Three hundred thousand calls were logged from Lucasville just last month alone.

Cynthia Davis, the current warden at Lucasville, said there’s a focus on programs now — recognizing that of the 21,000 incarcerated people who leave Ohio prisons each year, about two dozen of them are leaving Lucasville every month.

“We have recovery service programs. Sinclair College has been implemented here. We do the GED program,” she said.

This year, a short ceremony was held in Lucasville to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the riot, and a wreath was laid to honor Vallandingham. His friend, Darrell Logan, also one of the guards at the prison, said the prison is safer now and he thinks inmates are being treated better.  

“They are human beings. They are just like us,” he said. “They just made a mistake and they are behind bars while we are not.”