Filming injustice in Ohio’s prisons: Jason Goudlock’s story

January 4, 2020
Originally published on sfbayview.com.

by Bill Nichols

Jason Goudlock, an Ohio inmate, expected to gain his freedom soon when he wrote to me in 2008. He had served 14 years, beginning when he was 18, and he wanted to learn how to make a documentary film about the challenges he expected to face when he was released from prison. Unfortunately, he didn’t need to worry about adjusting to life on the outside anytime soon.

Still imprisoned today, Goudlock received a five-year “flop” in August – a parole board decision to hold him at least until 2024. That’s the bad news.

Since 2008, Goudlock has worked with me on his writing. He’s published a novel, “Brother of the Struggle” (2014), as well as many essays that can be found at www.FreeJasonGoudlock.org.

And I found Samuel Crow, a documentary filmmaker interested in prison reform. Crow recently completed work on “Invisible Chess: The Jason Goudlock Story,” a documentary now available free at www.FreeJasonGoudlock.org. (For a trailer, teacher’s guide, press kit and more see www.InvisibleChess.com.) That’s the good news.

Instead of focusing on the challenges Goudlock will face when he is finally free, “Invisible Chess” explores the injustice Goudlock and many other Ohio inmates face now. A “truth in sentencing” law Ohio passed in 1996 created a growing class of “new-law” prisoners who know exactly when they will get out.

“Old-law” inmates like Goudlock, who went into prison before 1996, are made vulnerable by this discrepancy. They can be denied parole for fighting even when they are simply defending themselves from younger men who will never face a parole board. The truth is “old-law” prisoners keep the Ohio Parole Board in business. And Goudlock has been denied parole six times.

When he first contacted me, he’d just read an essay of mine, “Contemplating Torture,” in which I compared our country’s use of isolation in prisons with our use of torture in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. At the time Goudlock was in the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a high maximum-security prison (“supermax”) where most of the men are held in isolation.

At the age of 12, Goudlock was sent away from his home in Cleveland for almost three years to a private residential treatment center in Pennsylvania, where, he writes: “I spent about two-thirds of my time in isolation.” Later, in our correspondence, Goudlock seldom mentioned his isolation at OSP, but in the next few years he would complicate my understanding of its effects.

Goudlock, 44, has experienced isolation off and on for most of his life. In recent years he has reluctantly begun to embrace it despite advice like this from attorney Alice Lynd, probably the wisest of his many correspondents:

“People need to be interacting with other people in order to maintain their perspective. Reading is fine, but not to the exclusion of living interaction with other people. You could be so messed up by the time you were released from prison that it would be very hard to adjust.”

I’ve mentioned such dangers to Goudlock too, adding that the Parole Board uses his unwillingness to live in the general population as evidence that he’s not ready to be released. This is his answer:

“If I call attention to corruption in the criminal justice system, as I have, my time will be increased, as it has. I have come to believe the only way I can survive my time in prison is if I’m isolated from the general population. …

“Trying to study and write in a general population cell makes as much sense as a student trying to study for an exam at a heavy-metal concert instead of in a library. Solitary confinement is no library, but it is the lesser of two evils. It is a stressful, often depressing, environment, but I’d rather be stressed and depressed and able to function than unable to function at all.”

When prisons are run unjustly, Goudlock has convinced me, a prisoner who is strong enough psychologically can sometimes find a better life in the “hole” than in the general population. Ohio has such a prison system.

There is irony in my relationship with Jason Goudlock. He got in touch with me because of that essay I wrote calling our nation’s use of isolation torture. While he hasn’t convinced me otherwise, he’s shown me that an injustice like the old-law/new-law discrepancy can make isolation preferable to life in the general population for some prisoners.

Another irony: making “Invisible Chess: The Jason Goudlock Story,” Samuel Crow and I uncovered evidence that Ohio’s “truth in sentencing” legislation reduces the chance that “new-law” prisoners will participate in classes and other activities that encourage rehabilitation.

One more irony: a condemned man mentored Goudlock while he was in isolation at OSP. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an African-American imam, was sentenced to death for his role in a 1993 prison uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, that led to the deaths of nine inmates and one guard. Hasan played a crucial role in negotiating an end to the uprising, and in a trial that followed the rebellion some inmates were given shortened sentences after testifying against him. (See Staughton Lynd, “The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising,” 2011.)

Goudlock talked with Hasan when he exercised in a day room outside Goudlock’s cell. He read some of Hasan’s essays. He began to write after months of little more than shouting protests in his cell about his unjust predicament.

He wrote “Brother of the Struggle” and his many essays. He can be found commenting on the American flag, hip-hop and “Invisible Chess” on www.prisonradio.org. He has become a crusader against Ohio’s unjust sentencing guidelines and is likely to continue even if it means another “flop” and more time behind bars.

Anyone wanting to urge the Ohio Legislature to resolve the unjust discrepancy in the state’s sentencing guidelines can contact Sen. Cecil Thomas, Senate Building, 1 Capitol Square, 2nd Floor, Columbus, OH 43215, 614-466-5980, and Gov. Mike DeWine, Riffe Center, 30th Floor, 77 South High St., Columbus, OH 43215, 614-644-4357.

Bill Nichols, a retired English professor, writes columns for the Valley News in New Hampshire. He can be reached at nichols@denison.ed

How I Became a Prison Film Producer in Retirement

You may have seen this warning sign: “Retired Person on Premises. Knows Everything and Has Plenty of Time to Tell It.” Well, it could have been posted on my door. Although I don’t remember many names, I know the answers to most of Life’s Larger Questions and am more than willing to share them. This affliction doesn’t foster lively communication with my wife, daughters, grandchildren, friends, or neighbors so I set out to fix it by undertaking a major task for which I was totally unprepared: producing a documentary

In this quest for aged humility I began working within areas of well-established incompetence. Despite recent improvements in user-friendly cameras, I take terrible still photos and have never even attempted to film anything in motion. My efforts to record interviews turn out so badly I prefer to take notes. The subject I’ve chosen is a single prison injustice, and though I’ve visited a few prisons and corresponded with inmates, my contributions to “Invisible Chess Match: The Jason Goudlock Story,” our working title, have not, so far, provided many flashes of insight regarding the failures of mass incarceration in the United States.

But the fact that it’s our working title explains why my pursuit of humility is unlikely to lead to humiliation. The film’s director, Sam Crow, won prizes with his most recent documentary, “The Twelve-Foot Tall Rabbits of Rokeby Farm” (see twelvefootrabbits.com). He is a skillful director who lives in New York City and has filmed before in prisons. I can’t explain why Sam agreed to work with me. He earlier volunteered to play bass and harmonica in a band put together by my grandson and then consented to record grandson Nate and me playing and singing folk and country songs we’d been practicing for years. My hesitant performance may well have inspired deep sympathy.

When I mentioned the film idea to Sam, he explained how a producer on this project would need to coordinate financing arrangements and script writing. Sam’s tasks include filming and editing interviews in Ohio with a judge, the Ohio Public Defender, ex-convicts, and inmates, including Jason Goudlock, a man of 42 who entered prison in 1993 as a teenager on a first conviction with a six-to-25 year sentence for assault and robbery with a firearm.

Goudlock has spent many of his 24 years in solitary confinement, a part of the story that turns out to be more important than we expected. When he first contacted me in 2008, Goudlock was isolated in Ohio’s “supermax,” the Ohio State Penitentiary. He had read an essay of mine about how extended isolation is a form of torture, but he wrote to seek help in making a documentary about the challenges he expected to face when he was paroled—soon, he thought. I was no help with his filmmaking plans back in the days before I became an inexperienced retiree producer, but when I discovered he was trying to write a novel, I volunteered to assist. By 2012 he had finished and published Brother of the Struggle.

Halfway through the production of “Old-Law Con,” Sam Crow has filmed and edited several powerful interviews, weaving them into revealing conversations. Just two or three interviews remain to be done, one of them a follow-up with Jason Goudlock, who is unavailable once more in isolation.

Sam and I have come to understand why Goudlock seeks solitary confinement, as dangerous as he knows it to be psychologically. His reason has everything to do with the injustice we seek to expose. In 1996 the Ohio legislature passed a “truth in sentencing” law that gives most inmates convicted since 1996 fixed sentences. They don’t need to go before the Parole Board. But the law doesn’t apply to people sentenced before 1996, and the result is that if a young inmate picks a fight with an “old-law” prisoner, he is unlikely to have his sentence extended while the “old-law con” probably will. Jason Goudlock has been denied parole four times. Inmates in his predicament keep the Parole Board in business.

Because our nation’s new Attorney General has set out to ramp up the “war on drugs” and to make room for more mass incarceration by encouraging expansion of the private prison industry, one state’s “old-law” problem might seem insignificant. But while the Trump administration seeks to strengthen the “prison-industrial complex,” reacting perhaps to the growth of bi-partisan concern about mass incarceration in the Obama years, it is important to work for prison reforms at the state and local level, where most of our incarcerated people are held.

We have our challenges in the Upper Valley as well. Vermont, officially committed to the commendable ideals of restorative justice, has nevertheless been sending many of it inmates to a private prison in Michigan. New Hampshire, which has so far resisted the corporate call for private prisons, recently elected a governor who has accepted campaign donations from two private prison companies. It may soon be time for this more experienced retiree to produce a second prison film.