Feb 15th, 2013, Youngstown Ohio-"I did break my hunger strike, with none of my issues satisfied" said Cornelius Harris, in a message to supporters sent on Monday. He says he "felt it was better to come off and do some ground work rather than risk my overall health". Mr Harris had been on hunger strike since January 4th, making him the longest known hunger striker at Ohio's super max prison, Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP).

While on hunger strike, Mr Harris also went to trial, defending himself against criminal charges stemming from incidents of violence with OSP correctional officers. He was facing 9 felony charges, including two counts of aggravated attempted murder. He represented himself, arguing that the fights were self-defense against guards who were systematically harassing him and regularly threatening his life. A jury found him not guilty of the most serious charges, but the judge sentenced him to 32 years for the remaining assault and weapons possession charges. The maximum sentence Judge Maureen Sweeny could have given Mr Harris was 36 years.

According to Patricia Vernucci, the alternate juror in the trial, Mr Harris was "the only honest person who gave testimony". She thought the prison guards, administrators and investigators called to the stand by the prosecution were "very patronizing and disrespectful... it seemed like they were just making stuff up as they went along."

Ms. Vernucci also says she was "shaken to the core" by what she heard in the courtroom, "I walked away feeling that something is very very wrong at that prison... this man is not safe there." Mr. Harris sites concern for his safety as a factor in his decision to end the hunger strike: "in this environment, physical health is very important, especially when you are such a target as I am."

According to Mr Harris, harassment and attacks by guards continued during the trial and hunger strike. On Sunday Jan 20th, guards attempted to move him from the medical cell he had been placed in due to the hunger strike to a substandard "R&D" cell. "According to policy a cell must meet certain criteria to house someone and this R & D cell was simply a holding cell and at the time it was flooded out and the sink and toilet didn't work" Mr Harris reports. They intended to hold him in the cell until Tuesday, because Monday was Martin Luther King day. According to Mr Harris, "they put guys in this cell as punishment and because I was taking this case to trial they wanted to punish me." Mr Harris refused and resisted the transfer: "as I will always do when my rights are being violated, I refused to go in that inhumane cell and the warden authorized for an extraction team to gas me out and drag me to the hole. I hadn't ate for two and a half weeks at the time, so I was too weak to put up a fight, but it was principle, that's why I resisted."

Mr Harris' trial was interrupted for medical treatment in response to his deteriorating health due to the hunger strike. The harassment and threats continued at Franklin Medical Center. Judge Sweeny ordered Mr Harris back to finish trial, against the FMC doctor's advice. More than 34 days without food can have serious medical consequences, like organ failure. During his hunger strike, Mr Harris lost over 50 pounds and experienced shooting pains in his legs and torso. He described it as "the worst pain I have felt in my life."

When Mr Harris was returned to his cell at OSP after the trial, he found that most of his personal property- 30 items worth over $300 were missing. Monday morning, OSP Warden David Bobby met with Mr Harris and said he would investigate and reimburse Mr Harris for what is lost. According to Ms. Vernucci, hearing testimony about guards tearing up and throwing Mr Harris' personal photographs in the toilet was one of the most affecting parts of the trial. She also expressed concern for Mr Harris' safety: "through the whole trial he looked so weak... how can he defend himself physically?" She was relieved to hear that he had resumed eating.

Ms. Vernucci's full statement and more information about Mr Harris can be found online at

Mr Harris has spent 3 years on level 5 at OSP with no conduct reports. The incidents discussed at trial occurred in 2009 and 2010. He was on hunger strike demanding interaction with visitors and other prisoners, so he could demonstrate an ability to be safely transferred out of OSP. Prisoners on level 5 are held in 7 x 11 foot cells 23 hours a day and are allowed no physical contact with visitors or other prisoners at any time. In June of 2012, a group of death-sentenced prisoners who've been on level 5 at OSP since it opened in 1998 were allowed the kind of contact Mr Harris is demanding following a 9 day hunger strike one of them undertook.

David Bobby, the Warden at OSP refused to make any public comments on the conduct of his guards or on Mr Harris' trial and hunger strike.


Full story at: Redbird Prison Abolition