Spotlighting an Ohio Old-Law Sentencing Disparity: A Fictional Conversation with Malcolm X and an Ohio Old-Law Prisoner

The following dialogue, inspired by an existing injustice, is a fictional conversation between a present day 39-year-old Malcolm X and an incarcerated 38-year-old African-American, Quintin Jefferson.

Jefferson dreams of telephoning the Organization of Afro-American Unity, headed by Malcolm X, to discuss a law that creates a long-standing, unjust Ohio criminal sentencing disparity. This law adversely affects a portion of the state’s minority class of approximately 5,000 “old-law” prisoners who committed a criminal offense prior to July 1, 1996. These prisoners are being forced by the state to serve disproportionately longer terms of incarceration than those served by the state’s majority class of approximately 45,000 prisoners, who were sentenced on or after July 1, 1996. Members of the majority class were sentenced to definite terms of incarceration, and with the exception of prisoners convicted of murder-related offenses, they are excluded from having to go before the Parole Board to be released. This disparity, an injustice in itself, also creates a problem in Ohio prisons, where “new-law” prisoners can assault “old-law” prisoners without risking a change in their date of release while “old-law” prisoners who engage in violence have their sentences continued. The following conversation takes place in January of 2013, shortly after the inauguration of the incumbent President Barack Obama. The author is a real life Ohio old-law prisoner.

Automated telephone operator: . . . If this call is collect, at the sound of the tone, please state your name and press the pound key. . . .[telephone beeps]

Caller: Quintin Jefferson. . . . [Telephone beeps as caller presses pound key]

Automated telephone operator: Please hold. [Telephone rings] . . . . [Telephone stops ringing] . . . .

OAAU secretary: Good morning. You’ve reached the prisoner assistance hotline of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. How may I assist you?

Caller: Good morning, uh. . . my name is Quintin Jefferson, and I’m a 38-year-old African-American prisoner incarcerated at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio. Recently your organization was featured in a Workers World newsletter, and I read that OAAU was interested in hearing stories of injustice from prisoners. I’m wondering if you could help me try to rectify an unjust sentencing disparity in Ohio that affects me, as well as several thousand other Ohio prisoners?

Secretary: Mr. Jefferson, today might be your lucky day. Our founder and director, Brother Malcolm, is almost never here at the office, especially in the mornings. But his flight to Haiti was canceled yesterday so he’s here now, and I think he might be very interested in your story. Give me a minute to brief him on your call, and maybe I can get him on the line. . . . [She puts Jefferson on hold.]

Malcolm X: Aaah, Brother Jefferson! Sister Roslyn tells me you’re trying to get some help in rectifying, as she put it, a sentencing disparity in that good ol’ state of Ohio where you’re imprisoned. Is that correct, brother?

Caller: That’s correct, Brother Malcolm. Absolutely.

Malcolm X: Well by all means, please enlighten me. What’s going on over there?

Caller: Okay. But before I do, I got to say it’s an absolute honor to speak with you! Without a question, this, along with the birth of my daughter, is the highlight of my life!

Malcolm X: [Laughs warmly] Aaah, yes indeed. Those little girls. . . they can make a man’s heart melt like butter on flapjacks, Brother Jefferson! But please continue. Provide me with a little background on yourself and your situation.

Caller: Okay. [Takes a deep breath] I was born and raised in the city of Cleveland during the crack-cocaine era, when it was pretty much in its infancy. I don’t have any siblings, and I had both of my parents in my life. Unfortunately, they were both heavy users of heroin, and their habit got more attention than I did. So I started hanging out on street corners, and pretty soon I was selling the same poison that was destroying them. By then I was sixteen. It worked for a while, but in 1993 a so-called friend of mine robbed me—robbed me good, too—and a few weeks later I returned the favor and ended up shooting him in the hand. He called the police on me, and I got charged with one count of aggravated robbery and felonious assault. A few months later, my court-appointed attorney coerced me into copping out to a deal of eight to 25 years, in addition to three years of mandatory time for using a gun in committing a felony. I got sentenced a day later, and I’ve been in a prison cell ever since. . . .

Malcolm X: [Whistles] You mean to tell me the good ol’ mobbed-up, corrupt state of Ohio has had you in one of those concentration camps for 20 years?

Caller: It’ll be 20 years in November, day for day. . . . And that excessively long prison sentence connects with the issue I’m hoping you can assist me with.

Malcolm X: Speak on, Brother. Speak on!

Caller: Okay. So back on the first of July in 1996 the state of Ohio abolished its use of the indefinite sentencing guidelines they used when I committed my crimes. Those guidelines require offenders in my situation to go before the Parole Board to be considered for release when we’ve served the minimum, front portion of our indefinite sentence. And the state replaced what we call those “old-law” sentences with a new set of guidelines that are drastically less punitive. Say I was convicted for aggravated robbery and felonious assault under the new law, excluding the additional three years for using a gun, the most time I could have been sentenced to is ten years! Plus, I wouldn’t have to go in front of the Parole Board for release because nobody except offenders convicted of murder-related offenses has to go before the Parole Board. And that’s very significant because the Parole Board routinely hands out multiple-year sentence continuances for minor rule infractions such as using profanity or not turning your radio down fast enough.

Malcolm X: Let me get this straight, Brother Jefferson. You’re telling me they can potentially make you do up to fifteen years longer than prisoners under the new law who commit the exact same crimes?

Caller: That’s correct.

Malcolm X: Brother Jefferson, give me a few seconds to loosen my tie. . . . You’re telling me a classic red, white, and blue story here, maybe mixed with a little Confederate orange. My temperature just went up a few degrees. . . .What are those people in Ohio thinking? If everything you’ve told me is accurate, I aim to get this pre-Civil War injustice out into the open. You probably know already the mainstream media don’t like me much. But I know some righteous individuals who can get some attention paid to this. What I really want, though, is something I said two weeks ago on PrisonRadio.org. I want those mascot rappers like Rick Ross, who was once a corrections officer and now pretends to be some kind of drug kingpin, to use their platforms to enlighten the masses with knowledge and wisdom so they can work on a grand scale to build a righteous world for all mankind. Rick Ross had the audacity to mention me in one of his buffoonish rap songs, but he doesn’t even talk the talk, let alone walk the walk.

Right now, today, with the power of social networking, one well-known rapper could turn the tide on an issue like yours. Or they could let people know about those other brothers in your state, the Lucasville Five. But except for Dead Prez, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Mos Def, and a few others, they mainly use their voices to glorify the luxurious creations of German automakers and French fashion designers. If they were jumping up and down bragging about owning their own cargo ships, you know, gargantuan vessels like the one Marcus Garvey bought capable of crossing the same vast Atlantic Ocean most of the rappers’ ancestors crossed on their way to the Americas, chained in the holds of diseased ships as slaves—well that might be something worth boasting about. But being a millionaire flunky mascot for corporate America, rapping about selling that hard white—oh, yes, I know what they call it, Brother Jefferson—why, that insanity won’t accomplish anything but the expansion of graveyards and prison yards.

And remember this—the expansion of the prison-industrial complex is why the Federal Communications Commission lets rappers like Rick Ross flood the airwaves with their lyrical seeds of destruction. The FCC knows these rappers’ lyrics generate massive profits for the prison-industrial complex. And those CEOs use lobbyists and front organizations to funnel millions of dollars from their prison profits into political campaigns of politicians who get tough on crime by commoditizing and disenfranchising millions of citizens in this country. That’s why you don’t hear much truly revolutionary Hip-Hop on the radio. The man behind the FCC is good old Uncle Sam, who doesn’t eat any green eggs and ham. No sir! He gives that to us while he eats T-bone steak and Boston crab. He knows true revolutionary Hip-Hop might lead to real revolutionary change, not that hollow pocket change rhetoric of the ’08 Obama campaign that didn’t change anything except the profit margins of billionaires, which got bigger.

Caller: Brother Malcolm, I couldn’t agree with you more. The cycle of corruption you describe in the prison-industrial complex is behind the injustice Ohio’s old-law prisoners experience. The Ohio Parole Board knows as long as they keep finding contrived reasons to give out sentence continuances, their jobs will be secure. And what really disturbs me is the blatant racism embedded in the Ohio prison system. All the disciplinary housing units throughout the state where they put prisoners in solitary confinement are packed with Black prisoners, which is truly sickening to me. You would think the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus would raise hell about the number of African-Americans held in these “control units,” but they’re nowhere to be found.

Malcolm X: They’re nowhere to be found, Brother Jefferson, because they’re too busy pretending they live in a fairy tale post-racial society. They’re waiting to be given a pat on the head by Uncle Sam for being the look-the-other-way, spineless politicians and activist organizations they are. With the exception of brothers Michael Erick Dyson, Dr. Cornel West, and Tavis Smiley, most of them are probably sitting around now, showing their teeth, dining on Boston crabs, waiting for that pat on the head. [Caller laughs] I’m serious, Brother! This is what they do so they can criss-cross the country in luxury while they pretend to be leaders. Some people call it posturing, I call it Uncle Tomming. This is one of the main reason’s I’m not visible in the media. The government and corporate America know I will never compromise myself or sell out the people for the sake of a handout of greenbacks covered with the faces of former slave owners. So I’m blacklisted. I can’t get a network to give me a slot on television, not even in the wee hours of the morning when they sell those little grills. But you’ll see one of those Tom organization getting prime time coverage to honor people like R. Kelly, the Black man who was caught red-handed urinating on little Black girls. I’m nobody’s judge, but I have no respect for someone who urinates on little girls. And I can’t respect any so-called African-American organization that bestows awards on such a person while ignoring the increasing mass incarceration that erodes the neighborhoods of people of color nationwide.

But listen, Brother Jefferson—I will investigate this old-law injustice in Ohio, and if you’re right, I’m going to mobilize support for you and the rest of your fellow old-law prisoners. I know a righteous European brother who works for RT.com, the television station that covers Brother Mumia Abu-Jamal’s fight for justice. I’ll speak to him. I’ll also have my intern get the issue onto the internet on a few dozen progressive websites. God willing, my efforts will turn the tide for you and your Ohio brother—and sisters too! We must not ever forget our beautiful women who are locked away, Brother Jefferson. Never! . . . But we are going to have to bring this wonderful conversation to a close, Brother. If we don’t, my phone bill is going to be higher than America’s debt to China. And I can assure you, Uncle Sam ain’t go bail ol’ brother Malcolm out! [Caller and Malcolm laugh, pause, and then laugh again]

Caller: You’re right about that! I just want to say I truly appreciate your assistance. I’m grateful on behalf of thousands of other old-law prisoners and myself. We’re up against long odds, but I’m going to use this tool of networking to chip away at the wall of old-law injustice until it becomes gravel.

Malcolm X: We’ll be in contact with you, Brother Jefferson. Sister Roslyn will get your address when I hang up so hold the line. Until then, you take care and—[The conversation comes to an abrupt end when the caller is awakened from his dream by the blaring of the public address system: it’s “count time.”]


Footnotes:
(1) Ohio death row prisoners Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Keith La Mar, James Were, Jason Robb, and George Skatzes, collectively known as the Lucasville Five, were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for alleged crimes during the infamous 1993 prison uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, the longest deadly prison uprising in U.S. history. Learn more about the Lucasville Five by going to www.LucasvilleAmnesty.org.

Downloads:
Download a PDF copy of this article.

The Cruel and Unusual Punishment of an Ohio Old-Law Prisoner

In 1993, as an undisciplined eighteen-year-old African-American living in the projects on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, I fell for the greed-driven allure of money I got from robbing people. During that time I shot a nemesis of mine in the leg, and in another incident I grazed a man with a bullet when my firearm accidentally discharged during a struggle for my weapon. In late November of that year, while I was on the run as a fugitive, my crime spree came to a screeching halt when I was apprehended inside the second-story project apartment where I sold drugs. With the exception of one robbery I didn’t commit, for which I was charged, I was guilty of all the crimes I was arrested and later indicted for. Prompted by the coercive advice of my two court-appointed attorneys, who told me I would never get out of prison unless I pled guilty, I accepted the first plea-bargain deal offered, pleading guilty to all my charges in exchange for an indefinite term of incarceration of six to 25 years. In addition, I received nine years of mandatory time for gun-specification enhancement. And I became inmate #A284-561.

I arrived at the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s inmate reception center in February of 1994. Soon afterwards, I received a notice that my first Parole Board hearing was scheduled for October of 2007, and that’s when the reality hit me like a vicious head punch from Mike Tyson in his prime: I was going to serve serious time. I knew a life of crime was not the life for me, but I also knew I’d already made my proverbial bed of life and had to lie in it.

The Enactment of Ohio Senate Bill 2 Sentencing Guidelines

Early in 1996, less than a year after the death of my grandmother, I read an important article in a newsletter while sitting in my one-man cell at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. As a result of Ohio’s Senate Bill 2, I read, on July 1, 1996, the state was scheduled to enact a new set of sentencing guidelines with the Ohio Revised Code. Widely known as “flat-time” guidelines, they said all criminal offenders who committed a crime on or after July 1, 1996, (except for offenders convicted on murder-related offenses) would no longer have to go before the Parole Board to be released. This was a great advantage to anyone sentenced under SB2, the new law, because the Parole Board had a well-documented history of issuing lengthy sentence continuances, often for arbitrarily contrived reasons.

In addition to not having to go before the Parole Board, new-law offenders’ terms of incarceration were significantly shortened in comparison with the terms of old-law offenders like me. For example, under the new law for a first-degree felony, excluding murder-related offenses, new-law offenders could be sentenced to either three years, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine years, up to a maximum of 10 years, with the sentence being determined by the trial judge. But offenders under the old-law, for committing the same first-degree felony, were sentenced to indefinite terms of incarceration of five to 25 years, six to 25, seven to 25, eight to 25, or nine to 25, up to a maximum of 10 to 25 years, and the minimum (front) portions of our sentences were determined by the trial judge while the maximum portion, the most significant, is determined by the Parole Board. This means an old-law offender can be made to serve up to 15 years longer than a new-law offender for the same crime at the discretion of the Parole Board.

On July 1, 1996, the new-law sentencing guidelines were enacted non-retroactively, as scheduled. The reality that I could now be made to serve years longer than a new-law offender seemed absurd to me. The cruelty of the sentencing disparity seemed to me equivalent to the racist crack-cocaine versus powder-cocaine disparity. If the state of Ohio had enacted the new-law retroactively, old-law offenders would have been spared many years of being punished excessively and unjustly. In addition, the discrepancies between the two laws made serving time more difficult for old-law offenders, who were forced to maneuver delicately around new-law offenders who, because of their exemption from having to go before the Parole Board to be released, could, if they chose, violate any rule without the consequence having any bearing on their predetermined release date. Over time, the unseen chess match maneuvers of old-law offenders became more challenging as the state’s prison population changed and new-law offenders became the new majority.

This demographic shift didn’t just create problems for old-law offenders. The emerging new majority also posed great challenges to the security and overall operation of the state’s prison system as a whole. As Ohio’s prisons filled with new-law offenders who weren’t concerned about the consequences of committing rule infractions, the atmosphere throughout the system became more volatile. Acts of violence and defiance became more prevalent. Observing an increase in assaults committed against prison employees and inmates and a surge in statewide bedlam, the authorities in the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction overhauled the disciplinary policies, instituting a new behavioral management model.

The new model led to herding unduly processed prisoners into 23-hour lockdown solitary confinement Special Management Units similar to the infamous Special Housing Units used in the California prison system. These disciplinary countermeasures were used by the state of Ohio as one justification for the expensive building and operation of the “supermax,” the Ohio State Penitentiary. Completed in 1998, the OSP cost $65 million, which amounts to over $129,000 for each of the 502 cells. The penitentiary initially reported a $22 million annual budget, which amounts to almost $44,000 annually for each inmate when the prison is full. In February of 2002 federal Judge James Gwin, responding to a class action suit brought by attorneys Staughton and Alice Lynd, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Center for Constitutional Rights, ruled that hundreds of prisoners didn’t meet the legal criteria to be housed in the “supermax.” After making changes in its security classification titles, however, the state prison system appears to have restored its ability to place large numbers of prisoners in isolation at great expense to the incarcerated and unincarcerated citizens of Ohio.

Can I Live?

With the stringent disciplinary reforms the disproportionate gap between incarceration and freedom for old-law offenders expanded even wider, to the extent that the odds of an old-law offender winning the Nobel Peace Prize seemed better than the odds of getting paroled.

In October of 2007, as a Security Level 5B inmate (the most restrictive status), I went to my first Parole Board hearing, aware that I was likely to be given a sentence continuance. As I anticipated, my sentence was continued. For the sum of all my misbehavior over a period of nearly 14 years, as well as for the crimes I was convicted of, I was given a sentence continuance of 36 months. I tried to take “being flopped” in stride by reading inspirational books such as Marcus Garvey’s Life and Lessons and starting to write my first novel, Brother of the Struggle. In 2010, as a Security Level 5A inmate (a less restrictive security status), I went to my second Parole Board hearing and was given a significantly shorter continuance, 14 months. The Parole Board member who officiated at my hearing acknowledged my positive strides during the course of the first “flop,” and she rewarded my productivity by promising to recommend my release at my next hearing if I stayed out of trouble. In 2011, as a Security Level 4A inmate (a further reduced security status), I went to my third Parole Board hearing and, as promised, I was recommended for release. No words can describe the joy I felt at the conclusion of my hearing.

Three months later I was told the Parole Board’s oversight committee, the Central Office Review Board, had reversed course and given me an increased sentence continuance of 15 months! Denied my physical freedom and the chance to visit the burial sites of my mother and grandparents, whose funerals I was unable to attend in 1995 and 1998, I continued to work towards reducing my Security Level, and I strengthened my resolve to attain my freedom.

In December of 2012, classified now as a further reduced Security Level 3 inmate, I went to my fourth Parole Board hearing, expecting to be released—that is, until I learned one of the Parole Board members, Marc Houk, had been head warden several years earlier at the Ohio State Penitentiary while I was there. His presence posed a significant conflict of interest. As warden at OSP he allowed his officers and staff to physically assault me and take my meals, and I had contacted everyone from elected officials to the NAACP about the abuse he permitted.

My parole hearing took place without any hint that I might be recommended for release. One of the Parole Board members asked me if one of my letters of recommendation, written on my behalf by a college professor, was a forgery, a possibility that could have been investigated months prior to my actual hearing. (It was not a forgery.) The Parole Board’s failure to investigate a matter crucial to the decision-making process reveals that I wasn’t afforded a meaningful hearing, as required by law. Several of the Parole Board members were absent because of bad weather so the hearing was held via closed-circuit video conferencing. For that reason I had to wait about one month to learn the Parole Board had given me a 24-month continuance!

Even knowing the deck was stacked against me because of Marc Houk’s participation in the Parole Board’s deliberations, I was devastated. And when I saw that the Parole Board Decision Sheet erroneously credited me with having served five months less time than I’d actually served, it seemed obvious that I had not been afforded a meaningful parole hearing. In addition, the reasons offered for my 24-month continuance made no sense. I had been given two minor Conduct Reports, the first for “verbal disrespect to an officer,” for which I was given a verbal reprimand. The second was for “disobeying a direct order” to take paper out of my window while I was using the bathroom, for which I was given a 30-day commissary restriction. Their conclusion was that I had “impulse anger control issues.” But during my 15-month continuance my Security Level had been reduced, a shocking response if I had been giving evidence of “impulse anger control issues.”

I would like to see the Parole Board explain on national television, perhaps on the 50-yard line during halftime at the Super Bowl, how they could give me a 24-month continuance at my fourth parole hearing on the basis of two minor Conduct Reports after granting parole in 2006 to another old-law offender, Roger Snodgrass, who was serving two indefinite sentences of five to 25 years. While serving the first of those sentences Snodgrass pleaded guilty to the stabbing death of an inmate during the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. After receiving the second indefinite sentence of five to 25 years, Snodgrass was paroled.

My once unshakable resolve has been damaged by an incident that took place on April 12, 2013. Unprovoked, a squad of Mansfield Correctional Institution officers attacked me, probably because I refused to give them any information about the theft of an inmate’s television set, about which I knew nothing. After the attack I was issued a Conduct Report accusing me of “disobeying a direct order,” which was later modified to “physically resisting a direct order.” Soon, I was found guilty of rule infractions, a result consistent with the Rule Infraction Board’s conviction rate, which is virtually 100%. Because I committed no rule infractions and because the incident was, to some extent, captured on a pod surveillance video, on May 31, 2013, I filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District of Ohio, seeking monetary relief in the sum of $250,000 (Civil Case No. 1:13CV1215). If the economically stressed state of Ohio wants to threaten unconstitutionally my existence and unjustly keep me confined in a cell until I have been (Nelson) Mandelitized in terms of time, the bill for my excessive pre-Senate Bill 2 incarceration is going to be costly.

Today, as I sit inside a cell on the fifth day of summer in 2013, I can’t help but think of the positive strides I could be making if the Parole Board had released me at my last hearing. While living at a halfway house, I might be dividing my time between working a job and spending time at the library preparing to launch one of my entrepreneurial ideas in tandem with promoting the book and soundtrack of the novel I’ve completed. I might even have met the woman of my dreams by now. I know for sure my life would be more significant than it is today. The mental anguish I deal with day after day is an excruciating pain that makes euthanasia seem almost attractive. I don’t want to die though. I want to live my life as a physically free human being instead of being three-fifths of a human commodity inside a system more corrupt than Halliburton.

I can’t go back to right the wrongs I’ve done. If I could, I would. But I can attempt to make amends and atone for my past deeds. After serving nearly 20 years, I should have the chance to make amends to the best of my ability. To do so, I need to be freed. I’ve paid my debt to society. Many so-called enemy combatants have been released from Guantanamo Bay after allegedly committing terrorist acts against the United States. They have been given a second chance. An assailant who shot President Reagan has been given a second chance by way of mental health treatment. The time has come for countless old-law offenders, including me, to be given a second chance.

Ohio, will you give me a chance to live? Better yet, will you let us all live?


Footnotes:
(1) Lucasville Killer Testified on Riot, Now He Walks Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 4, 2006, National Section; page A1; John Caniglia.

Downloads:
Download a PDF copy of this article.