CINCINNATI (CN) – Several members of the news media, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, argued before the Sixth Circuit on Thursday in hopes of reviving their constitutional claims against the Ohio Department of Correction, which blocked interviews with inmates involved in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot for over 20 years.
Noelle Hanrahan, director and producer of Prison Radio, former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges and several other writers and inmates sued Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and JoEllen Smith, its communications chief, in 2013.
The journalists and inmates claimed the department violated their constitutional rights when it steadfastly refused to grant interviews with certain inmates for over 20 years.
The longest deadly prison riot in U.S. history, the Lucasville uprising began on Sunday, April 11, 1993, when inmates attacked a guard while returning from the recreation yard. Five corrections officers were taken hostage after numerous prisoners were released from their cells by the initial attackers. Negotiations began two days later, with rioters demanding single-prisoner cells and more educational and visitation opportunities.
Inmates killed a guard two days after that and Warden Arthur Tate signed a 21-point agreement with the prisoners on Sunday, April 18, 1993. The standoff lasted another three days, ending with the surrender of the last prisoner.
In March 2017, summary judgment was granted to the department on the prisoners’ claims, and several months later, the department voluntarily modified its media policies.
U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss in November, ruling that the remaining claims of the journalists had been mooted by the policy changes.
The journalists had argued that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction could revert to its prior policies at any time, and sought an order prohibiting such a reversal.
Judge Sargus disagreed, and cited the department’s decision to grant many of the interview requests as proof it was true to its word.
“Defendants have given the court no reason to doubt the genuineness of their revocation of the allegedly wrongful policies,” he wrote. “Through the new media policies and actions upholding the policies, defendants have successfully met their burden of showing that the wrongful behavior plaintiffs refer to could not reasonably be expected to recur.”
Attorney Raymond Vasvari argued on behalf of the journalists and inmates Wednesday, and told the panel of Sixth Circuit judges that the prison policies did not change enough to warrant dismissal.
Vasvari said the prison uses restrictions on high-security inmates as “a proxy to limit content” available to journalists.
The attorney told the panel that the changes made by the department were “litigation-based.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons questioned the attorney on the power delegated to prison officials.
“I’m having a little trouble with respect to what prison officials can and cannot do,” she said. “It seems like [officials should be able to] … limit communication about an inflammatory subject.”
Vasvari responded that the power of an official is “circumscribed,” and reiterated that restrictions must be “content-neutral.”
Attorney Mindy Worly represented the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and attacked Vasvari’s argument on several fronts.
“Content neutrality,” Worly told the panel, “is not the touchstone when it comes to [speech] inside a prison.”
The attorney reminded the panel that the high-security inmates are the “most dangerous” in the state, and that “no restricted population inmate gets an interview.”
Worly also responded to Vasvari’s attacks on the intentions surrounding changes made to interview policies, and noted that meetings were held for months in early 2017 to discuss the state’s media policy regarding inmates.
She implored the panel to uphold the lower court decision, and said it should consider the effects of interviews on prison staff and inmates, as well as the outside world.
Worly cited a Netflix documentary, “Captive,” in which a Lucasville prison guard recounted his experiences at the riot and his subsequent return to work.
She also noted that the policy is in place to prevent any number of illicit activities, including sexual relationships between media members and inmates, the smuggling of contraband, or the coordination of an escape via coded messages.
In his rebuttal, Vasvari became animated, and touted these speculative acts as “a parade of horribles … that might happen,” but said they shouldn’t affect the policy.
U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Suhrheinrich interrupted for the first time.
“You don’t impress me by raising your voice,” he said.
Vasvari apologized, and concluded by telling the panel that the prison could enforce the rules it already has to prevent such occurrences.
U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay also sat on the panel.
No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.