Three years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union won a significant legal victory when a federal district court ruled that the state must follow strict due-process guidelines before sending prisoners to Ohio's only supermaximum-security in Youngstown. The number of inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary dropped dramatically after a court-ordered review of individual cases determined that two-thirds of the prisoners did not meet the criteria for such restrictive confinement. "The supermax was built to hold 504 prisoners," reported Staughton Lynd, the ACLU's counsel on the case. "There are now roughly 250. So, you can say we've very nearly cut the population in half."

The future of Ohio's only supermaximum-security prison may hinge upon a related hearing's outcome.

In an Aug. 31-Sept. 2 hearing before U.S. District Judge James Gwin in Cleveland, the ACLU attempted to block a recent state proposal to move Ohio's death-row from Mansfield to Youngstown. The ACLU has argued that the wholesale transfer of approximately 190 death-row prisoners violates the concept of individualized hearings. The Berkeley Wright Institute psychiatrist Terry Kupers, a witness for the plaintiff, testified that placing death row inmates in supermaximum facilities would result in deteriorated mental health, an increase in suicides, and an increase in requests to "volunteer" for execution.

Countering this, the state maintained that conditions at the Youngstown supermax did not differ significantly from those in Mansfield, and that planned amenities for the death-row inmates would improve living conditions. The state also argued that the daily budgetary cost of $157 per inmate at Ohio State Penitentiary would drop significantly if the facility were filled.

With a high record of suicide attempts, and recent allegations of prisoner abuse which are currently under investigation, critics of the move say that the state's money would be more efficiently spent by shutting the facility down. The federal court is expected to make its decision by the end of September.

Supermaximum security prisons have always been controversial. Originally designed in the 1970s in response to increased prisoner violence nationwide, they were built with the idea of isolating "the worst of the worst," or prisoners who had gotten into trouble since being incarcerated. Since the mid-1990s, supermaxes have been subject to an increasing number of lawsuits and human rights protests. Human rights advocates argue that prisoners kept in long-term solitary confinement suffer from mental stress and sensory depravation. This controversy is not new. The first experiment with solitary confinement took place when "silent prisons" were built in the U.S., more than a century ago. Locked in solitary confinement for most of the day, prisoners often became mentally ill and had to be transferred to an asylum. The last of America's "silent prisons" were dismantled at the turn of the century.

However, one guard I spoke with from Youngstown's Ohio State Penitentiary said conditions at his workplace today were disturbingly reminiscent. Prisoners were locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, in bleak concrete cells measuring 7½-by-11 feet. Each cell had a sink and toilet, a small desk, a concrete stool, a concrete slab with a thin mattress, and a slim rectangular window. "Bert," as the Ohio State Penitentiary guard has asked to be called (for fear of retaliation), claimed that the physical design of the prison itself bred a culture of animosity. "Over 50 percent of the staff has never seen an institution like this before they came to Youngstown," he said. "Here, they see people locked up all day. Half of them shit their pants. It's a dead end."

Bert told me that prisoners and guards, alike, refer to the Ohio State Penitentiary as "the hate factory." "We have an old dungeon type of prison here in Youngstown," he said.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a Sunni Muslim Imam who was sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion, has been incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary since it opened in 1998. In a written interview, Hasan emphasized that: "Rarely is media coverage given to guards assaulting prisoners, as if guards have a green light to assault prisoners. However, if prisoners assault guards, they are usually indicted and the media reports it."

Similarly, inmate Tommy McClenton (whose nose was broken during a July 17 shakedown, which he claims was no fault of his own), wrote that "guards who assault and withhold certain privileges from inmates" were provoking prisoners who would otherwise be eligible for transfer to a lower security facility. In Ohio, supermax prisoners are not eligible for parole board reviews, and must first be transferred to a lower security prison.

Recent events at Ohio's supermax support these two prisoners' statements. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, several guards and prison staff have reported an increase in the number of "use of force" incidents at the supermax. There have also been eight suicide attempts since July 11.

On August 11, an Ohio State Penitentiary correctional officer allegedly pepper-sprayed the prisoner Edgar Lee Hamilton, in retaliation for throwing a glass of urine on the guard, according to two staff witnesses who requested anonymity.

During a second incident two weeks later, Hamilton was beaten so badly that an ambulance had to be called. He received stitches for wounds to his head, after allegedly being banged several times against the cell bars. The prisoner was transferred last week to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, in Lucasville. The Ohio State Penitentiary's spokesperson Keith Fletcher and the State Highway Patrol Investigator's Office have confirmed that an "ongoing investigation" is underway, but have declined further comment. The Ohio State Penitentiary warden, Mark Houk, testified during the U.S. District Court hearing that the correctional officers involved had not placed on administrative leave.

Two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that Ohio death-row prisoner Martin Koliser told a fellow inmate he would rather kill himself than be moved to the supermax facility in Youngstown. He committed suicide on May 7.

Daniel Sturm teaches journalism at Youngstown State University in Northeastern Ohio. He is a German journalist who covers underreported social and political topics in Europe and in the United States.