PDT Content Manager
Editor’s Note: Information in this story could be disturbing to some readers.
The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility riot of 1993 was the longest deadly prison riot in United States history. An event with that gravity of distinction attracts national and international attention, and the situation during those 11 days in Lucasville was no different.
Locally, one member of the media played a larger positive role in the riot than the most. Frank Lewis, then general manager of WPAY-Radio and currently a Daily Times staff writer, covered the event from start to finish, even assisting in the release of a hostage.
“It was a never in a lifetime experience,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ involvement began shortly after news of the riot broke.
“It was Easter Sunday when it happened in the middle of the day, I went out there by that evening,” Lewis said. “I basically lived there. I would go home and lay down at the house for a couple of hours and they would call. I would jump back in my car and get back out there.”
As a member of the media, Lewis would spend time during the riot along the east side of the prison’s perimeter, where he described rows of satellite trucks and media members frantically seeking updates on the situation.
“There were news people here and there and back and forth all waiting to be briefed on what was happening next,” Lewis said. “It got to the point sometimes that there was such a lull that these people ended up interviewing each other. It was pretty strange.”
At the time of the riot, authorities were limiting the amount of information released to the gathered media.
“There were all these rumors that kept circulating out there, and you can imagine a bunch of news people hunting for something,” Lewis said. “If someone said something to them, it suddenly became truth. There was a lot of that going on.”
On Thursday, April 15, Lewis was approached by authorities concerning the possibility of providing the prisoners with a live broadcast on WPAY.
“A car pulled up and right where my van was stationed. Sharron (Kornegay, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) was driving the car and inside were negotiators and FBI and people like that. They said get in. I got in the car.”
Kornegay drove the car to Cook Road on the other side of the prison.
“One of the FBI agents said, ‘He and I are going to go for a walk.’ So he and I went out for a walk and he said, ‘How would you like to go in and facilitate a broadcast by one of the inmates?’ I said for what reason and he said that it could facilitate the release of one of the hostages,” Lewis said.
Lewis was not allowed to communicate with the staff at the radio station and was not allowed to alert his family of what he was about to do.
“I couldn’t call my family, I couldn’t tell anybody anything,” he said.
As the only 100,000-watt station in the area, WPAY was either the only station that could permeate the prison walls or it was the personal preference of many of the inmates in SOCF, leading to their request of Lewis’ presence.
With his equipment in hand, Lewis entered a prison in a state of riot.
“I started up the hall with my equipment with me. My engineer went up on the perimeter and sent wire over the fence,” Lewis said. “One of the guys that works out there was able to bring it down to the table where I had the microphone setup.”
While Lewis worked his way through the prison, inmates were roaming the hallways, free to do as they pleased.
“As you walked by one of them in the hall, they would turn and put their hands against the wall as you walked past,” Lewis said. “I was over in K-block when they started tearing fixtures off the wall. When they did, they got tear gassed. Well, I was there, so I got tear gassed before I even got to the site at the L-block.”
The involved parties negotiated the terms of the broadcast and Lewis was brought through the L-block, the part of the prison where much of the violence had occurred and that had been subsequently left without power and water.
Unable to see, it was another sense that left Lewis with the impression that something horrible was around him in the darkness.
“The only thing that I have in great remembrance is the stench that came out of there. It was just unreal. It was unlike anything you have ever smelled in your life. You just assumed what it was.
“I guess you have heard people say that death has a smell, and that maybe was what it is, but it was just a smell like nothing else,” Lewis said. “I’d rather not see in there and rather not go in there. I did not want to do that.”
The inmates decided who should would meet with Lewis to broadcast the demands. Prisoner George Skatzes exited the building, walking toward the table where the radio equipment had assembled. Skatzes shed his clothes, presumably to show he was unarmed. With him was another person with a pillow case over his head.
“He (Skatzes) sat down at the table and what he started doing was saying on the air, ‘Are you guys hearing me back there brothers?” Lewis said.
Skatzes’ broadcast generally covered the demands of the inmates, citing problems with conditions and a desire for more educational programs.
“It was after that that he turned loose the hostage,” Lewis said. “When he got over to us, we could see that it was Darrold Clark. They put him on a gurney and sent him off to the hospital.”
Lewis gathered his equipment and worked his way back through the prison hallways. Prison employees who were being kept inside applauded him as he passed by.
“It was surreal,” Lewis said.
After his part was played, Lewis was asked to do several interviews with media outlets from across the country. Many of the outlets were concerned about a the journalistic line Lewis potentially straddled as a media member becoming part of a story he was covering.
“There are still critics who are upset because they think that somehow interferes with journalistic integrity. As I have said many, many times, journalistic integrity can take a backseat when you are talking about saving a life.”
Because of his part in the release of a hostage, Lewis was named Honorary Corrections Officer of the Year after the riot had come to a close.
“The people that I met out there were very hardworking people who really have to deal with almost an impossible situation,” Lewis said. “What I saw there were a lot of hardworking people that liked their jobs, but they were scared. The guys that I talked to that were hostages would tell you nightmarish stories. I have great respect for those people.
“I was honored when they gave me the plaque. I still have it and I would never part with it.”
Twenty years removed from the tragedy that left 10 people dead and Lewis said, in his opinion, the legacy is that the state was forced to revisit its prison policies.
“I think what people got out of that is that you have to pay attention when inmates say something,” Lewis said. “Bobby (Vallandingham, Jr., son of killed prison guard Robert Vallandingham, Sr.) blames the fact that one of the state officials said they are not taking the (inmates) threats seriously.
“People need to pay attention to both sides of an issue. I think that came out of this and there are a lot of changes from the state from this. We all like to think that these people are all sub-human. They are not. Of course, most of them have done horrendous things, but on the other hand, in this country and this society, you still have to provide for the needs of people.”
Though great strides have been taken to improve conditions, services and programs for inmates, Lewis said there is always more that can be done.
“You can assume that most people in there will be getting out of prison,” Lewis said. “What has to happen is that someone has to prepare them for that. It’s a mutual respect that has to happen. I believe both the inmates and officers should respect each other. The only way that happens is communication and understanding.”
Bob Strickley can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 296, or email@example.com. For breaking news, follow Bob on Twitter @rjstrickleyjr.