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t can’t possibly be that 30 years have passed since that Easter Sunday when death and destruction took hold at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville, setting off the longest prison riot in American history.
But it really happened. Those of us who were there, covering the unfolding drama for dozens of news outlets, can remember the experience as if it were yesterday.
On that Sunday in 1993, more than 400 inmates staged a bloody, violent takeover of L Block in the prison, in protest of new restrictions in the overcrowded prison.
By the time it was over 11 days later, nine prisoners — believed to be “snitches” — were killed by fellow prisoners, along with one 40-year-old prison guard, a veteran of the Vietnam war.
There were three prisoner gangs — the Black Gangster Disciples, the Black Muslims and the Aryan Brotherhood — who worked together to control L Block.
The Muslims were opposed to a tuberculosis vaccination plan that they believed would be a religious violation.
I was at the Enquirer in those days. My friend and colleague Ben L. Kaufman, who was one of the first on the scene in Lucasville, and I worked together for the duration as the de facto editors on the ground, directing a staff of 15 to 20 reporters and photographers.
It turned out to be one of the Enquirer’s finest moments in its long history.
Early on, prison officials set aside a patch of land in the northeast corner of the prison property as a media staging area. For the hundreds of journalists who shuttled in and out of Lucasville during the 11 days, it was more than a staging area — it was home.
It was where we worked, slept, ate and ran to port-a-potties, mainly because of the garbage we ate from the Lucasville sub shop.
Off-and-on rain, especially during the first week, left the “staging area” a gooey mass of mud, which seemed to envelope everything.
The Enquirer’s base of operations was photographer Michael Snyder’s old Range Rover.
We kept supplies in there; and there was enough room for two or three people to take cat naps. It was quiet enough for us to dictate stories back to Cincinnati. This was the dawn of the age of cell phones, and we had one clunky old thing that required punching in a complicated code before you get a cellular connection.
Later, the Enquirer paid for a single land line to run into Snyder’s Range Rover, making communication considerably easier.
On the second or third day — can’t remember which — the relatively new editor of the Enquirer, Larry Beaupre, wheeled into camp bearing supplies for the rapidly growing crew of reporters and photographers on the scene.
Larry, who had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Attica prison riot in upstate New York, asked me what we needed.
“I need cash and lots of it,” I said. “We’ve got to feed these people, clothe these people, buy lanterns and batteries and whatever camping gear I can get my hands on.”
Beaupre reached in his pants pocket, pulled out a wad of $50 bills, and started peeling them off.
“Tell me when,” he said.
“More,” I said.
He handed me a stack of $50s that amounted to at least $500. I was satisfied. For the time being.
Almost every day, the editors back in Cincinnati threw more reporters and photographers into the fire, sending them out James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway to join the crew at Lucasville.
They were not always prepared for what they found.
One morning, a young reporter showed up at the mud pit dressed in a white shirt, necktie and wing-tip shoes, in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
“Dude, look around you,” I said. “You won’t last a day here wearing that stuff. Come on, get in my car. We’re going shopping.”
I drove him down the highway toward Portsmouth and wheeled into the Big Bear department store. We used part of Beaupre’s stash of $50s to buy him a pair of Dickies work pants, a couple of flannel shirts and some cheap boots.
I did that several times with reporters who seemed to think they were going to a prom party.
During the 11 days, there was a lot of waiting, hours of staring at the prison through binoculars, looking for signs of stirring within L Block. We worked in shifts, keeping the prison in sight 24 hours a day.
One of the most grotesque moments came after a spokeswoman for the prison dismissed the inmates’ threats to kill a guard. The inmates were enraged and strangled guard Bobby Valladingham.
The sight of the guard’s body being tossed out of a window and into the prison recreation yard was shocking.
A rumor began circulating in the town of refrigerated trucks hidden near the prison, to be used as mobile morgues should the slaughter inside L Block escalate.
It was true. The Enquirer had the story first. We found them alongside a two-lane highway that ran on the west bank of the Scioto River.
Thankfully, they were never called into action.
Meanwhile, another paper had published a story nearly every other news outlet in the mud pit was scrambling to match. The newspaper reported there were 19 bodies piled up in the prison gym.
Ben and I didn’t believe a word of that story. We had an extremely reliable source — Ed Boldt, FBI agent and press liaison during the riot, who was warning us off the story. Completely untrue, Boldt said. You have to ask yourselves this if you plan to repeat this — how foolish do you want to look when this is all over?
We had to fight off the editors back in Cincinnati, who wanted us to either match the story or quote it in our own story.
Ben and I flatly refused to do it.
You are in Cincinnati, a hundred miles away. We are here, living in this godforsaken mud pit, working around the clock, and I think we have a better handle on what’s going on here than you do.
They got the message. We did nothing. Some other Ohio papers quoted story. We did not.
And, of course, when it was over, there were no bodies stacked in the prison gym.
As it turned out, the best decision we made during the 11 days was to not report a story.
The stand-off came to an abrupt end on April 21 when prison officials agreed to 21 demands from the prisoners. The guards being held captive were released; prisoners, mostly naked, began filing out into the recreation yard.