PDT Staff Writer
It has been 20 years since the 11-day prisoner riot at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, and for those involved, the memory and pain is still as sharp as the day the chaos began.
One of the hostages finds the events of the riot — which started April 11, 1993 and ended April 21, 1993 — continue to haunt him mentally, emotionally and physically.
“I stopped back at the doctor’s today,” Jeff Ratcliff said. “I’ve got to have a new knee where they busted me on the knees with a ball bat. I’ve got two ripped and herniated discs in my lower back; shoulder surgery, and I’m going to have to have a test on my neck. They’re thinking surgery there too. And it’s all related to the prison riot. They’ve got me mentally and physically disabled. I go to the psychiatrist and take meds from him. And I take meds from regular doctors. I’ve been suffering it out. I’ve been waiting as long as I could before I had all the surgeries, but it’s coming to a head that I’m going to have to start having them here pretty soon.”
It was Easter weekend, 1993, and it looked to be one of those quiet holiday weekends that inmates and staff alike at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility had come to expect.
Approximately 250 inmates were returning to L-Block from recreation yards at the maximum security facility in Lucasville. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, staff on the yard included two activity therapists, six recreation officers and three correctional officers. As the officer at the entry metal detector began processing inmates into L-Block, he was attacked. Almost simultaneously, inmates assaulted a corridor officer, taking his keys and baton. A silent alarm alerted the control center, and officers began to respond. Inmates rushed to unlock cells and overpower corridor officers.
“I was working L-2, and it was rec(reation), and they were ready to come back in,” Ratcliff said. “I heard a bunch of noise, looked out the door, looked down and saw inmates taking the guards in the hallway. They had taken their keys, where you can open all the blocks. I saw inmates running back and forth, and then I saw officers down, supervisors down. I couldn’t get in my block, and I went back to the stairwell.”
Ratcliff went inside the seemingly safe area and called for help. None arrived.
“I called and called and called, and they would say they would be back, and then finally I just gave up,” Ratcliff said. “I saw them break the door in the front. And then they came back to where I was at.”
Ratcliff said the inmates told him if they had to come through the door it would be “100 percent death.” But, if he would give up he would be spared. He did. And for the next 11 days, he said he and fellow prison employees were beaten. He said the rioters were sharpening knives, poking his throat, blindfolding him, and pouring water on his forehead, dropping weight bars beside his head, telling him his head was going to be next.
Eventually, a surrender was worked out, and the process of turning hostages loose and turning themselves in began.
“Then, everybody got let out but I wasn’t released yet,” Ratcliff said. “They turned the cameras off and I was still inside. Then, I went over to the FBI and Highway (Patrol) Troopers so they could make sure it was me and I walked up the hallway and went to the hospital, stayed there for a little while.”
Ratcliff said one of the things that stays in his mind is his negotiating for the release of a hostage while he himself was a hostage. He said his fellow officer had a family at the time, and was only 20 years old, so he gave up his freedom to allow the other officer to go free.
Loss and lack of closure
Bobby Vallandingham, Jr., was just 19, was proud to serve his country in the military and in April of 1993, was stationed in California when he got word the riot had broken out.
“During the second day of the riot, I was home. The evening of the second day, I was sitting at Valley High School,” Vallandingham, Jr. said.
The Lucasville-Valley community had just built a new school across from the prison, and it had not as yet been occupied by students, but was, instead, first used by the families of the hostages. It is while Vallandingham, Jr. was there that he received word that his father, Robert Vallandingham, Sr. had been killed and his body thrown out onto the prison grounds. Vallandingham, Jr.’s life was changed forever, and during the Easter season especially, it all comes back to him. At times the loss of his father overwhelms him.
“What makes me mad is my kids not knowing him,” Vallandingham, Jr. said. “That’s one of the most hurtful things that was a result of it, them not knowing him.”
Both Bobby Vallandingham, Jr. and his mother Peggy remain angry about the death of their father/husband, and the aftermath of the riot. What remains a missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that Vallandingham, Sr. apparently got along with most of the inmates, raising the question, why was he chosen to die?
“That’s one reason I still lay a lot of blame on the state,” Vallandingham, Jr. said. “One person in particular that made the statement that ‘we’re not taking their threats (to kill hostages) serious on the radio and TV. But they damn well knew that the inmates were sitting there watching, and they (the rioters) thought, ‘you know what, we’ll show you we’re serious,’ and I think that is what that all stemmed from. Because he was liked and respected, and they knew that, and they thought, ‘we’re gonna make a point and we’re gonna make a point right now and we’ll get everybody’s attention and they’ll know we’re serious.’”
When the smoke cleared, 47 inmates were convicted of violent crimes. Five were sentenced to death, including four of the seven convicted for their roles in the slaying of Vallandingham, Sr.
Peggy Vallandingham said the thoughts surrounding the riot and her loss are never far from her mind, but this time of year is always a more difficult time. She resents the fact that some of those convicted in the riot murders remain on death row.
“Until they decide to execute, Bobby (Jr.) nor I will ever have closure,” Peggy Vallandingham said. “To be quite frank, I’m sick of housing them because certainly it is my tax dollars that go to keep them. And I don’t like that at all. But unfortunately the government won’t make me exempt from paying taxes. It’s just not good. It never is.”
One of the people credited with bringing the siege to a resolution was Cleveland criminal defense attorney Niki Z. Schwartz.
“The riot started on Easter Sunday,” Schwartz told the Daily Times. “One week later, on the following Sunday morning, I got a call at home from the chief counsel for the Department of Corrections, who explained to me that they were in the seventh or eighth day of the riot. That they had been negotiating with the inmates, had made some progress, but had reached an impasse. That the inmates had demanded a lawyer, and they decided they wanted to give them one, and they would like it to be me if I was willing to do it. That they were asking me because they knew me from two previous prison condition cases that I had against them.”
Schwartz said while he differed with authorities, there was nonetheless a mutual respect.
“Although I was a pain in the posterior, they regarded me as honorable and would trust me,” Schwartz said. “And they thought because I had been an advocate of prisoner’s rights, and decent prison conditions, the prisoners might trust me, and they were looking for somebody both sides could trust. So with that introduction, how could I say no?”
Schwartz said the inmates had a list of 21 demands, which Schwartz said centered around the inmates safety at the time of surrender. He said some dealt with the fear of retaliation.
He said the most frequently asked question he gets about the experience is, “Weren’t you scared?” Schwartz said he answers, “There was only one time I was scared, and that was on the toy plane that the Highway Patrol flew me down there in.”
Schwartz said in the years that followed, he remained in touch with some of those charged in the riots.
“When I arrived all of the prisoners thought I was their lawyer,” Schwartz said. “When the riot ended I recognized that there wasn’t enough of me to go around. And that there would be inevitable conflicts between and among prisoners, so it was impossible for me to represent everybody. So I concluded that I would limit my role to issues relating to the 21 points to do what I could to see to it that the state lived up to the agreement on those 21 issues. One of the issues was the promise of fair and impartial prosecution, and I spent an enormous amount of time working on doing what I could to see that the prisoners got effective assistance of counsel in their cases, but I didn’t personally represent them in any of their cases.”
Lives changed forever
While citizens who sat glued to their radios and televisions for 11 days have mostly been able to get back to their lives, there are those who have been changed forever. Peggy Vallandingham lost a husband who loved to coach and officiate local sports events, a dedicated part of the Minford community.
Bobby Vallandingham, Jr. not only lost his father, but has to explain to his children why they will never get to know their grandfather.
For Jeff Ratcliff, the memories are forever evident in his aches, pains, and emotional scars that will probably never go away.
“Every year when Easter comes, or when an anniversary comes, whenever it comes that time, I can feel it. And my wife says it’s the worst time of year for her and the family, because I change. It’s just like I change for the worst,” Ratcliff said. “I get flashbacks. I dream it, I can’t sleep. I get nervous.”
For Ratcliff there is no end to the agony or the anger that goes with it. It just goes on and on and on.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT.