Keith LaMar is being held in solitary confinement at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown, a supermax prison. LaMar has been in solitary for over 22 years. For 19 of those years, he was not allowed to touch his visitors, including his friends and family.
Since November 9, LaMar has been on a hunger strike – along with fellow prisoner Jason Robb who joined him on the second day – because a new warden has decided to limit his access to music and books. Specifically, he will only be able to keep 15 books and CDs in his cell.
LaMar says this may seem like “petty stuff to people who don’t know about solitary,” but that the ability to read books and listen to music keeps him alive. Currently, he has amassed over 100 CDs and 30-plus books. Because the prison considers him a security risk, he has been denied access to JPay Players, digital devices that hold thousands of songs and offer limited email access.
When contacted by Truthout, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined to comment on the hunger strike.
“These books and CDs keep me grounded in reality. They are keeping me from ‘drifting’ and help me deal with this place.”
Adrienne Gavula, the regional office director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio, emphasized in an interview that research notes that prolonged solitary with little human interaction is dangerous to mental health. “Solitary affects behavior and can cause some to experience hallucinations,” she said. “Access to these players and music and books connects them. It’s some of the very few comforts they’re allowed. So stepping in and saying that you can have fewer books makes no sense.”
Gavula recently toured OSP and notes that most religious, mental health and recovery programming is done on televisions within people’s cells or in cages outside cells. She says this type of supposedly rehabilitative programming isn’t effective, and makes it harder for prisoners to get out of prison. “You could argue that the prisoners in solitary need the most programming. So why are we not providing it?”
For someone locked in a 7-foot-by-14-foot cell for all but an hour or so a day, these proposed limits to books and music are a big deal. “I know exactly what book to grab to pull me out of my depressed state, or what kind of music to listen to in difficult times,” LaMar said. “Other guys smear feces on themselves or throw it at guards. But see, I don’t do those things because they are temporary and cause you more trouble.”
LaMar was raised in Cleveland by a single mother and says he struggled as a Black man in an environment fraught with hunger and violence. As a teen, he began selling drugs and by age 19 he was convicted of killing someone in a drug dispute. LaMar eventually ended up in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville. In April 1993, a riot in response to increasingly harsh prison conditions left one guard and nine prisoners dead. After the riot was quelled, the community around the prison, where many guards and prison officials lived, demanded swift retribution.
LaMar was on the receiving end of that retribution. He was offered a plea deal but refused, and was convicted by an all-white jury of organizing and taking part in the murders of five prisoners. To this day, he professes his innocence.
LaMar was sentenced to die along with four others: Siddique Abdullah Hasan (formerly known as Carlos Sanders), Namir Abdul Mateen (formerly known as James Were), Jason Robb and George Skatzes. Those four were accused of being riot leaders and ordering the death of a prison guard. Currently, Hasan, Mateen and Robb are also housed at OSP.
He’s not taking any medication, he says; books are his therapy, his friends.
In an oral argument before the Sixth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals in 2014, David Doughten, LaMar’s lawyer, argued that there’s no physical evidence linking him to the murders, that LaMar had no grievances with the murdered prisoners and that he was convicted based solely on the testimony of other prisoners who cut deals. But more importantly, Doughten said, the prosecutor in the case failed to share exculpatory evidence in the initial trial. This evidence includes testimony that LaMar was not involved in the murders for which he was convicted. Essentially, his lawyer was just asking for a fair trial.
LaMar lost this appeal and is essentially waiting for an execution date. In the meantime, he is housed in Ohio’s most severe prison rather than on the state’s official death row in Chillicothe. At that prison, he would have more privileges.
For LaMar, this hunger strike is about the arbitrariness of his situation. “These books and CDs keep me grounded in reality. They are keeping me from ‘drifting’ and help me deal with this place,” he said.
According to LaMar, his cell window looks out on the prison’s parking lot. He watches the cars and people come and go – a strange ebb and flow of lives and routines. Developmental psychologists say that we learn and grow from our contact with those around us. Contact for LaMar is so fleeting.
LaMar says he wants to be connected with the outside world. For several years now he has worked to send copies of books he likes to youth caught up in the criminal legal system in his hometown of Cleveland. He speaks with them over the phone about his own experiences in hopes that he might help them turn a corner.
One of the books they are reading together right now is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. A huge fan of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, it’s no surprise that LaMar loves the book.
“Coates is talking about the perils that come along with inhabiting a Black body in a racist country, how difficult it is to get from point A to point B when you’re in Black skin,” LaMar said. “I think a lot of people on the outside looking in look at the ghetto and all they see is the senseless killings and poverty, but Coates is saying that these people are human beings. And when you’re cut off, you turn on yourself because that’s the only thing you have left in terms of self-expression.”
With some of the kids he speaks to, he says, the state is just waiting until they turn 18 and they can let the prisons take care of them. “I’m on death row; I’m fighting for my life. I just want to tell them that their lives are in danger.”
Of the hunger strike, LaMar says that ultimately, it’s not only about books or music. “It’s about the struggle,” he said. “It’s a levy you’re holding back. You got to struggle to hold this thing off. I’m sitting in this cell and they turn down my appeal. Why am I still here? Day in and day out. I’m reading to understand that life is suffering and I’m learning through it.”
He’s not taking any medication, he says; books are his therapy, his friends. And to whittle his collection down to seven books and seven CDs is painful. He takes comfort in knowing that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is on his shelf, as well as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jeffrey Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.
And he takes comfort in knowing that he can listen to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
“I don’t listen to it all the time – I just like to know it’s there. And you know that line? ‘God is.’ That line? I go to it when I’m deep, deep in it.”