By Chris Hedges
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—Siddique Hasan, his legs shackled to a chair, sat in the fourth-floor visiting room of the Ohio State Penitentiary, a supermax prison. The room, surrounded by thick glass windows, had a guard booth in the center and food vending machines flanking a microwave on one wall. There was a line of small booths, entered through a door behind Hasan, where families, including children, were talking to prisoners through plexiglass partitions.
Hasan, born Carlos Sanders, has been in juvenile detention facilities or prison since he was an adolescent. His early life was difficult, unstable and marked by extreme poverty. His mother had her first child at 12 and her fourth and final child at 19. His father, who was physically abusive to Hasan’s mother, abandoned the family when Hasan was 5. The children and their mother survived on her meager pay from cooking and cleaning jobs. Hasan, the third of the four children, lived briefly in foster homes and never went beyond fifth grade. He ran the streets with his older brother and engaged in petty crime. Since his first incarceration, in his early teens in Georgia—where he was nicknamed Savannah Slim or Savannah Red, and where he worked with other convicts on Georgia prison highway details—until today, he has spent only 17 months outside prison walls. He has always rebelled. He masterminded a mass escape from a juvenile detention facility when he was 15 years old and, a year later, a mass escape from a county jail. In 2013 he took part in a hunger strike with other death row prisoners that saw prison authorities finally agree to expand the range of items at the prison commissary, permit physical contact in visits with relatives, allow prisoners to use computers to do legal research, increase the length of phone conversations and increase recreation time.Hasan, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 52 years old, bearded and with wire-rim glasses, had a white kufi on his head. He wore a short-sleeve shirt over a long-sleeve shirt, light blue prison pants and white Nikes. His 209-pound frame was taut and compact, the result of an intense exercise regime. He has been on death row since he was convicted for his actions while leading, along with four others, the April 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. They are known as the Lucasville Five. The uprising saw prisoners take control of the prison for 11 days in protest against numerous grievances, including deaths that occurred allegedly from beatings by guards. It was one of the longest prison uprisings in U.S. history. By the time it was over, 10 people had been killed by prisoners, including a guard.
“I am a human being,” Hasan said. “I don’t like being locked up, deprived of my rights, told when to go to bed, when to eat, when to shower. These things hurt a person physically, emotionally and psychologically. No human being should be caged like an animal.”
Before he converted to Islam in 1981, he said, he was “a materialist freak and a monster that sold drugs and protected people for payment in prison.” He organized prison gambling rings and extortion rackets and oversaw a small army of enforcers.
“I would have 30 pairs of shoes, 30 bottles of lotion, 30 bottles of shampoo, 30 bottles of baby oil and 200 bars of soap in my cell,” he said. “But once I came into Islam and put into practice the knowledge I acquired, I changed.”
He hopes prisoners will organize to mount a coordinated nationwide work stoppage and hunger strike to improve conditions behind bars, including raising pay from the roughly $1 a day that prisoners now receive for eight hours of labor to the legal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. He would like to see coordinated boycotts of the overpriced commissaries. He said prisoners should purchase only the bare necessities, such as soap and toothpaste, and forego the “zoozoos and wamwams,” prison slang for junk food. He places no hope in the courts and the legislatures. Prisoners will have to start to carry out acts of mass civil disobedience for any justice, he said—that is the only mechanism left to them.
“Prison authorities never give you anything without a fight,” he said, clutching white prayer beads. “Those prisoners who can should refuse to go to work to demand the minimum wage, although the first thing the prison will do is try and break it up by transferring the leaders to another prison or remove them from the general population. But if any protest is done right, with unity, they may not lock anyone down. Let the prison authorities know in advance what will be done. Let them know the demands. Don’t surprise them. Give them an opportunity to resolve it, say 60 days. If you catch them by surprise all you will get is a lockdown. If you put them on notice they can’t say they didn’t know it was coming.”
“The beauty of a work stoppage is that the prison administrators have to bring in compensated labor,” he said. “This is what happened in the Georgia prison system in 2010 when the prisoners held a work stoppage for six days. It cost the state a lot of money. The prisoners got a lot of concessions. The issue of state pay cannot be solved expeditiously. That takes time. It is best to have other demands and other tactics. We can lower commissary prices and the price of phone calls through boycotts.”
There are lessons about resistance Hasan has learned that apply not only to the 2.3 million Americans who are incarcerated but to a society in which the loss of civil liberties and the creation of the security and surveillance state increasingly mirror the prison state. Revolt, he said, must include certain elements. Those who rebel must understand how systems of power work; otherwise, effective resistance is impossible. Revolt requires a disciplined and hierarchical organization and an incorruptible leadership to prevent betrayal, anarchy and bloodshed. To maintain unity there must be a commitment to nonviolence and a refusal to allow intrusion from personal, racial or religious animosities, including the hatred many prisoners feel for homosexuals and those who are informants or “snitches” for the prison administration. Divisions among the oppressed, Hasan said, are gifts to the oppressor. There must also be a clear set of achievable demands and an active support network outside the prison willing to mobilize on behalf of the rebels. Any revolt requires transparency, including informing the authorities in advance of a protest and articulating demands. Prisoners who mobilize an entire prison cannot hope to keep anything secret given the swarms of informants, he said. Finally, a revolt requires a willingness on the part of the rebel leaders to sacrifice and to even lose their lives. For him, Husan said, this last element is made possible by his faith.
“Most prisoners don’t have a problem going on strike for fair wages and better conditions,” he said. “They will challenge the powers that be. The problem is that we need people on the outside to help us. If we go on a hunger strike and starve ourselves, if we refuse to work or participate in our own self-destruction there have to be groups publicizing our resistance and backing us.”
Hasan, who had been only months away from being released at the time of the uprising, lived in the Lucasville prison honor wing, reserved for prisoners who had good disciplinary records. He worked as an imam among the prison population. During the uprising he repeatedly minimized or prevented violence. He is credited with saving several lives, a fact that came up in his trial. The state, as always, was far more concerned with removing a charismatic and incorruptible prison leader, no matter what he or she did, from the general prison population. Prisoners in sworn affidavits after the uprising told of Ohio State Highway Patrol officers moving through the institution’s population and offering deals for reduced sentences to those who would name and testify against revolt leaders. One of those who testified against the leaders of the uprising, Anthony Lavelle, the head of the Black Gangster Disciples inside the Lucasville facility, is widely believed to have carried out the murder of the prison guard, Robert Vallandingham. For that killing, Hasan was sentenced to death with George Skatzes, Namir Abdul Mateen, Jason Robb and Keith Lamar. Despite intense pressure by the state, and promises to spare them from the death penalty, the five men refused to incriminate each other. That the five are mixed racially, that Skatzes and Robb at the time were members of the Aryan Brotherhood and had to reject white solidarity to stand with the black defendants, was remarkable.
“They rose above their status as prisoners, and became, for a few days in April 1993, what rebels in Attica had demanded a generation before them: men,” Mumia Abu Jamal wrote in the foreword to “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising,”by Staughton Lynd. “As such, they did not betray each other, they did not dishonor each other, they reached beyond their prison ‘tribes’ to reach the commonality.”
It was the Muslims, the most disciplined and politically conscious segment of the prison population, who organized the Lucasville revolt. And the uprising was, from its inception, designed to be nonviolent. Guards would be seized, as had happened five years earlier in the prison during a protest against deplorable conditions, and held until prisoners were permitted to make contact with the press. Once the press reported the prisoners’ grievances, and once the state agreed to address the abuses, the guards would be released.
“We were dealing with a warden, Arthur Tate Jr., who was very hard-line,” Hasan said. “The convicts called him King Arthur. We wanted to bring enough pressure on the system to take it out of his hands and get his superiors in Columbus at the ODRC [Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction] to respond. The goal was always to resolve this amicably.”
No one in Lucasville, Hasan said, wanted to replicate the bloodbath that took place in New York state in September 1971 during the four-day uprising at the Attica prison in which over 43 people were killed, including 10 correctional officers and civilian employees, along with 33 prisoners who died at the hands of state police officers who stormed the institution. But uprisings, as Hasan swiftly found out, are very difficult events to control.
The catalyst for the revolt was a decision by the prison administration to test the prisoners for tuberculosis by injecting them with a substance the Muslims believed contained alcohol, which is forbidden to followers of Islam. Hasan and other Muslim leaders asked the prison authorities to do the testing by X-ray or sputum sample. The prison refused. The testing, especially because it was scheduled for Ramadan, was, Hasan said, “the final straw.”
“Muslims were fasting,” he said. “They couldn’t take a shot.”
Conditions in the prison were already barbaric. There was severe overcrowding. White and black prisoners often physically clashed, and the practice of housing men of different races within the same cells exacerbated the tension. Medical facilities were inadequate. Families that attempted to visit prisoners were harassed and abused by the guards. Commissary items were overpriced. Phone calls were limited to one five-minute conversation a year, usually at Christmas. Guards routinely beat prisoners, at times fatally. A group of prisoners known as the “Lucasville 14” had earlier attempted to renounce their U.S. citizenship. Three of them, to illustrate their seriousness, cut off fingers and mailed them to the United Nations and the U.S. Department of Justice. Prisoners had also attempted to organize a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World to demand that prison laborers receive the national minimum wage. Every attempt to organize or resist was met with harsher control.
“There were several incidents where a prisoner did something like masturbate in front of a female guard, spit on a guard or become verbally and physically abusive,” Hasan said. “In situations like these the guards are supposed to file a conduct report. But instead the guards took the liberty of physical abuse, and in some cases this was fatal. They would take a prisoner to isolation or administrative segregation, go into the cell, close the door and jump on the prisoner while he was handcuffed and shackled.”
Internal prison protests, he said, have become an imperative. Nearly all rehabilitation programs have been terminated. Tens of thousands of prisoners are locked for months or even years in isolation. Prisons, every year, are extracting more money from prisoners and their families through exorbitant phone fees, rising commissary prices, money transfer services that take huge commissions and refusing to provide items such as footwear, forcing prisoners, who typically earn about $28 a month, to pay $45 for sneakers. Prisoners must also pay an array of fees, including hundreds of dollars to be taken on a visit to a dying family member or to a funeral home. And more and more prisoners, because of fees and fines, are leaving prisons with thousands of dollars of debt. Over 60 percent of those who are released return to prison. This is by design.
“The prison officials know that when you get out you are coming back,” he said. “You are not trained to do anything. There is no advanced program of education. There is no vocational training. You get out and you don’t have a place to live. You are on somebody’s couch. You don’t have money. You can’t get a job. It’s just a matter of time before you go back to exploiting your old way of living. And prisoners are demonized. They are portrayed as incorrigible, unsympathetic, uncaring, irredeemable monsters that need to be in prison.”
In the 1993 revolt the Muslims seized a dozen guards at the end of the recreation period around 3 in the afternoon. Prisoners, freed from their cells and prison control, grabbed baseball bats and fire extinguishers and attacked guards. Hasan said someone suggested to him they murder the snitches and the “fags,” an act he denounced, saying “that would mean killing half the prison population.” Prisoners began to barricade hallways with ice machines and locker boxes. They used 45-pound weight bars and pickaxes to smash windows and doors to capture guards in a secure area known as a “safewell.”
“Me and some of the other Muslims had congregated in the barbershop,” he said. “A brother told us they were killing snitches in [Block] L6. We went down to L6 and saw bodies on top of bodies. Not all were dead; some were gagging for air, some survived.”
“It was mass chaos,” he said. “People were beating the guards and beating convicts. It was pandemonium. Blood was in the hallway. It was like a massacre. Blood does not have a nice smell. I remembered snapping on the Muslims and telling them to secure these guys.”
Hasan moved the captured guards to the shower stalls and kept them protected. He placed vulnerable prisoners, including the informants, in cells for their safety. The Muslims had drawn up an organizational plan before the uprising, with groups assigned to security, legal matters, food distribution and education. They struggled to impose order.
I asked him how he felt when he saw the bodies and the bloodbath, something he had desperately hoped to avoid.
“I didn’t feel anything, maybe because I have a different perception about death than other people,” he said.
“Stabbin’. Killin’. Hangin’. This was not [an intended] part of the uprising,” he said. “Things got out of hand. You had a lot of prisoners with a lot of grudges, animosities and hatred in their hearts for prisoners and nonprisoners. These people had snitched on them or abused them. People settled old scores with other prisoners and with guards. That’s what happened. That’s what went wrong.”
Rape, too, was a problem during the uprising. Prisoners who committed rapes during the revolt were locked in cells. Hasan said one black prisoner, Bruce Harris, raped a white prisoner. Other white prisoners, when they heard of the rape, wanted to kill Harris. Hasan intervened.
It was agreed that a prisoner from each of the three main prison factions—the Aryan Brotherhood, the Muslims and the Black Gangster Disciples—would punish Harris. They took Harris into the corridor and beat him for three minutes. Then they took him to the gym and beat him again for three minutes. After that, they locked him in a cell.
“Bruce was nervous that they were going to kill him and he started tearing up the cell,” Hasan said. “He tore the porcelain toilet off the wall and smashed it to pieces, disturbing the Muslims, who were praying. I went to Bruce. I asked him to stop. I assured Bruce that he was not going to die. I told him I would escort him out to the prison authorities when the time came to end the riot. He promised to stop making a ruckus.”
Harris, however, was killed later by fellow prisoners. The state attempted to charge Hasan with the murder, but during the trial a video was produced showing Hasan in negotiations with prison authorities at the time of Harris’ murder.
“When there is disorder and no law, people have the tendency to do evil things,” Hasan said.
“What is the cause of any uprising?” he asked. “Simply put, it’s man’s injustice to man. We could not expect freedom, but we could expect freedom from oppression, tyranny, persecution and gross miscarriages of justice that go on in institutional life. Prisons are here to stay. Be realistic. It’s about the money, the control and the power. But if you take over a prison you can confront the evil and the corruption, you can make some changes.”
The captured guards, he said, suddenly began calling him Mr. Sanders, something that was unthinkable when he was under their domination.
“The guards were all saying they were sorry, they were just doing their jobs,” he said.
The white prisoners, many of them members of the Aryan Brotherhood, gathered nervously in the gym in the first hours of the revolt. They feared that the blacks would turn on them. All of the alleged snitches killed in the first few hours were white. A few blacks believed to be snitches had been beaten but had survived. Hasan called the Muslims to prayer in the gym. He demanded that the non-Muslim prisoners be quiet and respectful during prayer. When it was over he announced that any other religious group that wanted to worship would be given the same respect shown to the Muslims. That promise of respect broke down the racial walls and made possible an alliance between whites and blacks. Prisoners began to paint slogans such as “Convict Race,” “Convict Unity” and “White and Black Together” on the walls.
“I did what I did with the choices that were available,” Hasan said. “I had to do something. I am a revolutionary. To be a revolutionary is to be an agent of change, which is impossible if one doesn’t know what needs to be changed. For there to be a revolution there must be revolutionary consciousness. A prisonwide hunger strike, a prisonwide work stoppage, would have been more effective. But then it would not have been about the Muslims. You would have had to take it to the whole convict body.”
On death row all who rebel against empire are comrades.
“People, Muslim and non-Muslim, admire ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria],” he said. “They are happy to see ISIS stand up against the U.S. government and Israel. A lot of us may not agree with all their tactics, but we know what it is like to be pushed to the edge. We also know that al-Qaida carried out the attacks of 9/11 against the symbols of American power, the Pentagon and the financial institutions. If they only wanted to kill Americans they could have flown the planes into a stadium with 80,000 or 90,000 people during a pro football game. Prisoners, because they are oppressed, like seeing anyone stand up to the big bad wolf.”
The Lucasville uprising was settled peacefully. The state promised not to carry out reprisals against the leaders, a promise it broke once it regained control.
The state should not be able to murder people, no matter what these people have done. But what of a state that places a person such as Hasan on death row when it knows he never committed murder? What of a state that cut a plea deal with the actual killer of the corrections officer so it could execute Hasan? The message sent by the state is clear: It does not fear criminals. It fears rebels.
Hasan, who is fighting his own death sentence in the courts, has seen several men taken to the death chamber. Two of those executed—Abdul-Hakim Zakiy and Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi—were close friends. The last conversations before execution haunt him.
“Brother Mahdi didn’t get a lot of visits in prison,” he said. “He would not participate in the final process. He didn’t want a last meal. He spent the day fasting and reading the Koran. He asked for a little olive oil and some Islamic dates. I told him he would be dearly missed. I told him I knew he had a strong faith. I told him I knew he believed in Allah. I told him to accept that all life is transitory. I told him to hope that Allah would accept his worship, the sincerity of his belief and grant him paradise. I told him I loved him. I felt helpless.”
“He did not want his family to get his body,” he went on. “He wanted his body washed and buried according to Islam. He wanted to rest in the prison burial plot with the other Muslim prisoners. It is hard to see someone you love and admire go through that. I believe I will see him in the next life. I can’t imagine going through that without my faith.”