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There’s So Much Life Here: A Death Row Prisoner Looks Back on Over 20 Years in Solitary Confinement

Keith LaMar has been in solitary confinement for more than 21 years.

(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)

A prisoner-painted landscape mural in the style of Bob Ross dominates the visitors’ room at the Ohio State Penitentiary: a dense forest of evergreens in the foreground with a mountain lake reflecting the rising sun and a tall white-capped mountain beyond. The focal point of the painting is the neon yellow sun radiating light in the darkness. In a place with no natural light to speak of, there’s this homage to the romantic beauty of nature. Visitors want there to be hope here just as they want this painted paradise to be real.

When Keith LaMar finally comes through the door, he’s doing a sort of locked-up shuffle – hands shackled behind him, short slides with his feet. The guards take off his cuffs. He slips off his glasses and wipes his brow and sighs as if he’s putting on a new face. He’s changing places and persons – for a brief moment, he gets to be outside the locked door to his pod.

Keith LaMar has been in solitary confinement for more than 21 years.

I say, “Hello,” and then there’s an awkward “I-go-for-a-handshake” and “he-goes-for-a-hug” moment. He wins because he’s the guy in prison. He’s wearing a navy blue, long-sleeve T-shirt with a short-sleeve blue Oxford over it, blue scrubs and leather work boots. I can smell his fresh-laundered clothes and can tell that he’s ripped – he boxed, back in the day.

And then I notice that the guards have shackled his feet to the table.

A Path to Solitary

Keith LaMar was born in Cleveland to an absent father and a mother who, he says, struggled to keep the family together. At Christmas, he says, she wrapped empty boxes and album covers to keep up appearances. He says he was often hungry and remembers walking into a grocery store and making a sandwich. He got nabbed on the way out. At 12, he went to juvie. Soon, he was using drugs, then selling them, and in 1989, was given 18 years to life for murder.

He ended up at one of Ohio’s most notorious prisons, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility or Lucasville, where prison warden Arthur Tate apparently imposed strict discipline in the overcrowded prison. Tate ignored requests for transfers to prisons closer to family, limited phone calls to once a year at Christmas and ordered near constant shakedowns of prisoners’ cells.

But the tipping point came when Tate ordered tuberculosis testing that involved phenol injections below the skin. Sunni Muslim prisoners requested testing by another method like X-rays or spitting in a cup. Tate ignored their request.

The state was making a point, that they wouldn’t be treated as typical death row prisoners, that these men would be placed in the harshest circumstances possible.

An uprising was launched by Sunni Muslims on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1993, and on the first day, five prisoners were killed. The Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, ended on April 19, 1993, and three days after that, the prisoners at Lucasville surrendered. Keith LaMar tells his version of what happened in a book he wrote called Condemned. There was more than $40 million in damage to the prison and 10 deaths – nine prisoners killed by prisoners and a prison guard named Robert Vallandingham, who was strangled to death. No one was killed or injured by guards.

Most people in southern Ohio (many with connections to the prison) wanted a swift response. They circulated petitions calling for the death penalty for anyone linked to the murders. In the investigation and prosecution that followed, LaMar was accused of murdering five men as part of a prisoner-engineered death squad. The state said he killed the men in order to get outside of the cell block and away from the riot. The prosecutor offered him a deal, but LaMar refused to accept it, insisting on his innocence. His case went to trial.

His trial was moved from Scioto County where the riot happened to avoid a tainted jury pool. It was held in Ironton, seat of Lawrence County, just 35 miles away. LaMar is black, and his jury was all white. LaMar was sentenced to death.

Four other men were also sentenced to death for their apparent involvement in the Lucasville uprising: Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Namir Abdul Mateen, Jason Robb and George Skatzes. Unlike LaMar, these four were accused of being riot leaders and ordering Vallandingham’s death.

But when Ohio State Penitentiary or Youngstown supermax opened in 1998, a direct response to the riot, they all wound up there and not on Ohio’s traditional death row in Chillicothe (George Skatzes was eventually sent there for health reasons). The state was making a point, that they wouldn’t be treated as typical death row prisoners, that these men would be placed in the harshest circumstances possible.

Eighty percent of those kept in solitary are people of color, and 60 percent are mentally ill.

On December 2, 2014, Keith LaMar had what might have been his last appeal before the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His attorney David Doughten noted major concerns with the case. He pointed out the lack of physical evidence linking LaMar to the crimes. He claimed that LaMar had no grievances against those he’s accused of murdering, and no links with the purported riot leaders. And Doughten underscored the fact that LaMar had been convicted because of testimony from prisoners who cut deals for lighter sentences and transfers to better prisons.

But Doughten’s central argument had to do with something called a Brady violation. The term comes from Brady v. Maryland (1963) in which the US Supreme Court ruled that during pre-trial discovery, the prosecution must give the defense any exculpatory, or favorable, evidence.

When LaMar’s lawyers requested access to these interviews, the prosecutor gave them two lists. One list had the names of more than 40 prisoners. The other list had short summaries of witness interviews. The names and the interviews weren’t matched up. The prosecutor claimed the mix-and-match process was meant to protect witnesses. The judge then gave LaMar’s lawyer an extra $5,000 and a few months to re-interview all those people – an impossible task.

Ultimately, Doughten claimed, LaMar’s lawyers weren’t allowed sufficient access to testimony from witnesses who said he wasn’t involved with the murders at all. He argued that the prosecutor’s withholding of exculpatory evidence violated LaMar’s constitutional right to a fair trial.

Abodes of Discipline, Misery and Commerce

Late 18th century reformers promoted the penitentiary as a humane way to facilitate the transformation of convicted criminals. Instead of the stocks, whipping or branding, the penitentiary would be a private place for convicts to live simply, reflect on their lives, and to repent. In 1787, Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, called these temples of repentance “abode[s] of discipline and misery.” Reformers like Rush believed people would emerge from prison “corrected” – and prepared to reintegrate with society.

Even Rush might be surprised by supermax prisons, our modern houses of “discipline and misery.” Technically, a supermax is either a control unit within a prison or a stand-alone prison for prisoners who have been deemed especially dangerous. Supermax prisoners typically live 23 hours a day in isolation with one hour of exercise, though that, too, often happens in isolation. There are few activities; meals are eaten alone; communication with the outside is restricted and surveillance is constant. Exercise occurs alone and in an enclosed space.

Of the approximately 2.3 million imprisoned Americans, about 80,000 are in solitary, not just in supermax prisons, but also in special units within other prisons. Eighty percent of those kept in solitary are people of color, and 60 percent are mentally ill.

For 19 years, Keith Lamar didn’t touch another human being.

Human Rights Watch asserts that supermax prisons “are unduly severe and disproportionate to legitimate security and inmate management objectives; impose pointless suffering and humiliation; and reflect a stunning disregard of the fact that all prisoners – even those deemed the ‘worst of the worst’ – are members of the human community.” Supermax facilities can be especially hard on the mentally ill because of sensory deprivation and lack of social interaction. And if a person is not mentally ill already, Human Rights Watch stresses, they can “develop clinical symptoms usually associated with psychosis or severe affective disorders.”

As of June 2014, there were 420 prisoners – of whom 260 are black and 154 are white – at the Youngstown supermax, a prison situated in a postindustrial city with a 35.6 percent poverty rate. Youngstown is a little Detroit, but without the national attention or the Tigers, Lions and Pistons (or even Eminem).

The prison employs 242 guards plus 85 additional staff. But the economic benefits of the prison extend further afield. The vending machines in the visitors’ area are stocked by AVI Food Systems. Aramark runs the cafeteria. CP Transport provides ride services to the prison. JPay handles money transfers, secure emails and video visitation. Everybody – companies, employees, communities – gets a cut.

How to Survive Inside

If I leave early, LaMar has to return to his cell. So I stay the whole six hours. But the time passes quickly with conversation about his Cleveland childhood, and about US history and literature – including a long discussion about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and whether or not Douglass ultimately valued the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. I say he did, and LaMar isn’t sure. We go back and forth. It’s clear he’s not just questioning Douglass’ agenda, he’s questioning the US agenda – and mine.

LaMar says he read very little before prison, and he searches for words sometimes, mispronounces them occasionally, and then will ask how to pronounce them correctly. “See this is what happens when you learn to pronounce things via dictionary,” he says, and laughs. “If I hadn’t gotten this sentence, I wouldn’t have read. I wouldn’t have met Richard Wright. Of course, I’d prefer to have met him outside.”

We get hungry and those AVI vending machines come in handy. For LaMar, it’s a break from the food on the other side of the door. He asks for an orange juice, a large cappuccino and a cheeseburger. I say I’m going to get one too.

LaMar looks at me. “You think you can eat the whole thing.”

“Try me.”

A few minutes later, I plop a tray down on the table loaded with two plastic-wrapped microwaveable “Giant Burgers,” a package of Cape Cod waffle cut sea salt chips and two Pepsis.

“Alright,” LaMar says.

I eat the whole soy-tasting thing before LaMar finishes his.

“Damn, you can eat a lot for a skinny guy.”

“Crime is an inevitable result of impoverished communities. And then they go after some people more so than others and lock them up longer and execute them more. And here we are.”

I get up to pee once. LaMar doesn’t move the whole time. Not after one OJ, one cappuccino and one Pepsi. The next day when I point that out to one of LaMar’s friends outside, he says that LaMar doesn’t want to get up because then they have to put the chains back on. Then they have to strip search him and it’s dehumanizing.

When we’re done eating, a prisoner in a khaki jumpsuit asks if we want a photo – an option for all visitors. LaMar doesn’t like the first photo and asks him to retake it. He does. I don’t know if I should smile or what. LaMar smiles. I force one out, too.

Another prisoner, grinning from ear to ear, is escorted to a table across the room. The guards unshackle his arms and legs then chain his ankles to the table. LaMar nods. The prisoner nods back, grinning all the while. He’s waiting on a visitor, but his visitor’s late. So he sits there grinning and talking to himself, staring off at nothing in particular.

For 19 years, Keith Lamar didn’t touch another human being. He met with people – talking through plexiglass separations. No touching. No handshakes. No hugs. No way to feel the solidity of someone else’s flesh or to sense another heartbeat. In January 2011, LaMar along with Jason Robb and Siddique Abdullah Hasan went on hunger strike so they could have human contact.

The strike lasted 12 days. Before it began, LaMar wrote, “We who have been sentenced to death must be granted the exact same privileges as other death-sentenced prisoners. If we must die, we should be allowed to do so with dignity … the opportunity to pursue our appeals unimpeded, to be able to touch our friends and family, and to no longer be treated as playthings but as human beings who are facing the ultimate penalty.”

He told me that he knew he had the upper hand all along.

“See, in order to kill me, they have to keep me alive. Now that’s a hell of a thing,” he says, chuckling, his expression wavering from smile to scowl to sorrow.

“I Gotta Believe My Life Is Going Somewhere”

Inside, LaMar says guys go one of two ways: They give up and watch television, or they obsess over their cases. His is a middle path. He works on his case, for sure, but he also meditates, reads and writes dozens of letters every day. And he’s surprisingly connected with the outside world. Before all these contact visits, he rarely got sick, but now he catches colds. “That’s the price you pay for being a part of humanity!” he says.

He longs to be outside because inside, he says, the level of conversation rarely rises above “Fuck you.” And other times it’s just doors slamming and yelling – constant chaos.

“I have visitors to test my reality, to gauge whether or not I’m seeing the same things,” he says. “I gotta believe that my life is going somewhere, that our lives are. Otherwise, what are we doing? You know they say that you don’t die until your last friend dies, until that last person utters your name.”

It’s thoughts like this. It’s his humor and personality – despite the fact that he’s been accused of doing some horrible things – that have led people in addition to his family and childhood friends to come here, to spend six hours in this place with him.

“When my life’s over I want to know I fought for it. If I’m sitting in the death house, I gotta know I did everything I could.”

One of LaMar’s regular visitors has been Amy Gordiejew, an ESL teacher at Youngstown State and wife of an anthropology professor named Paul. Both are preachers’ kids and grew up believing sincerely that their purpose in life was to serve and be friends to those in need. They had visited prisoners together for some time – in part because they live in Youngstown and were in a special position because many prisoners don’t have family nearby. They had been visiting another prisoner who was about to be transferred and he told them about LaMar whom they first met after the hunger strike when he could finally have contact visits.

Amy tells me, “It’s a mutual exchange of kinship and friendship. We don’t have family here in Ohio. And my kids have come to care about him and ask to visit him. Paul and I were just trying to teach our children that love doesn’t have to fit in a certain box and now its way bigger than that.” They’ve taught them what it means to be a friend to someone, even when they’re facing something hard.

“I don’t think of him as a convicted killer,” Amy says. “I personally don’t want to be stamped by a specific moment in my life. And Keith, well, you know, there are many people who are free, but don’t realize there’s a purpose for their lives.”

After our first phone call, Amy sent me a long email and then early the next morning she called my office. I think she was nervous about what she said and how she said it or maybe she just wanted to clarify. I think maybe, too, she was worried about how others might perceive her.

“I don’t know what leads others to go visit prisoners,” she told me. “Look, I had my trepidations about doing this and wondered why I should care about this guy? What about the victims of crimes?”

But Amy told me that she also sees the big picture behind much of the violence that leads to incarceration.

“Look,” she said, “crime is an inevitable result of impoverished communities. And then they go after some people more so than others and lock them up longer and execute them more. And here we are.”

I myself went as a writer researching my state’s death penalty. LaMar read one of my books and wanted to talk about writing and the book, so I went.

A Lesson Before Dying

One stark reality of the US justice system is the 150 men and women who have been exonerated since 1977. When I started research for this essay, the total was 147. In Ohio, this reality has nine names and faces: Gary Beeman, Dale Johnston, Timothy Howard, Gary Lamar James, Joe D’Ambrosio, Kwame Ajuma, Rickey Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman and Derek Jamison (who happened to have been tried by the same prosecutor as LaMar, the prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence). Will LaMar’s name someday be added to this list?

Every day, LaMar gets an hour outside his cell to exercise. The exercise yard is a below-ground concrete pit. No one can see in, and all he can see is the sky, the birds that pass overhead and the tips of the trees in the woods that surround the prison on three sides. He says he pays close attention to the changing seasons and fall is his favorite. He studies the golden yellow and deep red leaves as they transform in the only landscape he’s allowed to experience. He says he feels blessed to at least have this – this from a man who can’t remember the last time he touched a tree or dug his hands into the earth.

“Those woods are a part of this beautiful thing,” LaMar says. “And you know when I look out there, the barbed wire is always in my view, always in the way. But thank God, there’s something bigger than us, something better. Because look what we did – we made that ugly barbed wire. If that’s all we can do, well, that’s a hell of a thing.”

LaMar points to the landscape painting in the visitor’s room and tells me there’s a figure hiding out in the forest. An escapee, the artist’s wish fulfillment, the ability to go out of one’s body, the ability to be wild again – to be fully human.

“When my life’s over I want to know I fought for it. If I’m sitting in the death house, I gotta know I did everything I could. And then there’s that drive to Lucasville and knowing that everything you see, it’s the last time you’re going to see it. That tree. That bird over there. That lake you cross over. That cloud.”

He pauses and smiles nervously.

“You know, that’s some heavy shit,” LaMar says. “You can’t help but become attached to your life – to fall in love with this world.”

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