The Ohio Pen's avenging angel
Ysabel Rennie (right), and coverage of the 1968 riot. Photos courtesy Eric Renee, Scripps-Howard Newspapers/GH Public Library/PhotoOhio.org, OSHP.
This story appeared in the August 2008 issue of Columbus Monthly.
The Congressional committee came to Columbus looking for radicals and revolutionaries. It was the summer of 1973, and Richard Ichord, the U.S. House of Representatives’ most fervent anticommunist, wanted to know if left-wing groups were inciting the state’s prisoners to revolt. Testifying before Ichord’s House Internal Security Committee at a hearing in downtown Columbus, Harold Cardwell, the former warden of the Ohio Penitentiary, mentioned his chief nemesis, Ysabel Rennie, as an example of a subversive agitator. The claim drew laughter from the gallery.
To say the least, the 55-year-old suburban housewife was an unlikely insurgent. She wore sensible shoes, signed letters “Mrs. Robert Rennie,” lived in Upper Arlington and worked closely on political campaigns with the Kennedy clan and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband was a prominent Nationwide executive, and she worked for the forerunner of the CIA during World War II. She was more than just a square. She was a “cube,” as her oldest daughter, Ann, liked to say.
But for the past five years, Rennie had been storming the Bastille of Columbus, if you will. Her relentless attack on the Ohio Pen and other prisons uncovered deplorable conditions, cruel guards, indifferent administrators, terrorized inmates, even slaughtered cats. Her work resulted in sweeping reforms and widespread public outrage. Inmates likened her to Joan of Arc and Antigone. Others called her “Mrs. Wonderful” and “The First Lady.” Her husband jokingly dubbed her the Virgin Mary, since so many inmates asked her to intercede on their behalf.
She was a one-woman prison reform movement—a gumshoe, muckraker, advocate, publicity hound and shrewd political operator. In her 1973 book, Kind and Usual Punishment, British author Jessica Mitford wrote Rennie “almost single-handedly toppled some of the more hideous abuses” at the Ohio Pen. Though she’s now long forgotten, she once was so well known that a Cleveland man addressed an envelope “Ms. Ysobel Rennie, Authority of Ohio Prison Systems, Columbus, Ohio,” and the letter still managed to get to her.
Rennie traveled a remarkable path to go from the head of an innocuous do-gooder church group to the state’s most vocal and effective champion of murderers, armed robbers and rapists. The journey took her from late-night meetings with ex-con informants to a blockbuster hearing before a U.S. Senate investigatory subcommittee. Along the way, she feared her phone was tapped and stopped a riot from occurring, as well as received a prestigious Governor’s Award and won the undying devotion of some of the roughest criminals in Ohio, including one who threatened a prison guard who dared to call her a housewife. “She’s a lady!” the Ohio Pen inmate said, grabbing the guard’s coat.
The journey was filled with frustration, triumph, humor and, ultimately, heartbreak. And it all began 40 years ago this month when rioting inmates—armed with knives, clubs and other makeshift weapons—seized control of the Ohio Pen and begged for someone to pay attention to their plight.
In August 1968, the Ohio Pen was seething. Inmates were locked down and buildings were burned out, while guards were working 12-hour shifts. Tensions were boiling over, particularly in the disciplinary cellblock called C and D. Two months earlier, rioting inmates caused nearly $1 million in damage, setting fires and breaking windows. Now, the prisoners were ready to rise again—and this time they would take hostages.
The responsibility to start the second riot fell to John Conte, known as “Paisan,” one of the 100 or so men rounded up in the sweep following the June revolt and put in the disciplinary block. Conte and his two close friends—Richard “Red” Armstrong, a charismatic natural leader, and Kelly Chapman, a shrewd jailhouse lawyer—were inmate ringleaders during the tumultuous events of 1968, uniting black and white prisoners for the first time at the Ohio Pen. “The others were like fingers of the hand,” says former prisoner Gordon “Spunky” Firman. “The fist was Kelly, John and Red.”
On a hot, humid day in mid August, Conte, exercising outside his cell, told guard Jim Hailey that an inmate was in trouble and needed his help. It was a lie to get Hailey away from the other guards. Once Hailey reached the end of the corridor, Conte pointed a 12-inch knife at his stomach and took his keys. Conte gave the keys to another inmate, who freed the others on 1-C.
Next, Conte confronted Don Dilly, a guard on 2-C, telling him to “play it cool.” Armed with a hospital scalpel, Chapman joined Conte and threatened Dilly when the guard claimed he didn’t have keys. “You son of a bitch. I ought to kill you,” Chapman said. Conte calmed his friend, saying, “We don’t want any violence.” In fact, Dilly later told Ohio Highway Patrol investigators that Conte “kept us from getting killed,” even fighting other inmates who threatened to harm the seven guards taken hostage during the nearly 30-hour ordeal.
Using those hostages as leverage, Conte wanted to air his grievances to the public. While Chapman and others freed inmates, Conte told authorities to call a press conference, a tactic also used by prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary earlier in the year.
About 2:30 pm, Conte got his wish. Warden Marion Koloski escorted print, radio and TV reporters into the prison. Inmates outlined their demands: new privileges, a federal investigation of the prison, the firing of 12 “sadistic” guards and administrators and amnesty for the rioters, among other things. Conte and Armstrong, the main spokesmen during the 30-minute interview, didn’t mince words. Armstrong threatened to burn alive the hostages in the two cellblocks now under the rioters’ control. “Our backs are to the wall,” Armstrong said. “We have to win all the way or lose all the way.”
Koloski and the inmates continued to negotiate through the afternoon and evening. The warden hoped the press conference would provide a breakthrough, but that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Koloski had to fight off police and Ohio National Guard officials eager to bust into the prison, guns blazing. Koloski, the former superintendent of the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, had taken over the prison in early July after the previous warden, Ernie Maxwell, was hospitalized for exhaustion. Koloski, a 6-foot-5 former football tackle, earned a reputation as a supporter of humane treatment of inmates during previous stints at Chillicothe, the Mansfield Reformatory and the Ohio Pen, where he started his career as a psychologist.
The next morning, Koloski typed a list of concessions. He agreed not to prosecute those involved in this revolt and grant more privileges to the men in the disciplinary block. But Koloski couldn’t give amnesty to the June rioters (he said it was up to the Franklin County prosecutor) or allow a federal investigation of the Pen. Conte and Armstrong rejected the bargain. Meanwhile, inmate unity splintered as some rioters shot morphine and popped pills stolen from the prison hospital. After Rabbi Nathan Zelizer, the Pen’s Jewish chaplain, failed to persuade the inmates to give up around 2:30 pm, the warden permitted police and the National Guard to take action.
What followed was a blood bath. Police blew holes in the roof of one cellblock and the wall of another—explosions that could be heard throughout downtown—and stormed the prison. The blasts stunned inmates, just as Ohio National Guard Gen. Sylvester Del Corso hoped. Del Corso, who two years later commanded the guard force at the Kent State shootings, used a similar tactic while fighting in the Philippines during World War II. In the ensuing chaos at the Pen, five inmates died. “I gave my men orders to shoot to kill,” said then-Columbus police Maj. Dwight Joseph, who later became the city’s police chief.
The outcome devastated Koloski. “It was 30 hours of hell for me,” he told Columbus Monthly earlier this year. At his request, prison officials transferred him to the central office a few days later and replaced him with Cardwell, a hard-nosed Highway Patrol major involved in the rescue of the hostages. “What do you call it? Post-traumatic syndrome. I had that son of a bitch for years,” Koloski said.
Cardwell came to the Pen with one item on his to-do list: tighten security. Recreational and educational programs were canceled, and inmates went without baths, haircuts and shaves for weeks (causing some to break out in sores). Guards were armed with pistols and shotguns, and all 153 trees in the prison yard were chopped down so snipers in two newly built machine-gun towers would have clear views. Cardwell (not a tall man) even carried a pistol, earning him the nickname “38 Shorty” among inmates.
After police reclaimed the Pen, a guard spotted Armstrong and yelled, “You ain’t running nothing around here now.” Armstrong was a legendary 5-foot-4 hothead, who cut off the tip of his finger in a bizarre prison protest years later. “By God, I’m not dead,” he told the guard. “I will rise again.”
Rennie followed what happened at the Ohio Pen on TV and in the papers during the summer of 1968. She’d been driving past the pre-Civil War compound for 17 years, oblivious to its inner happenings. Now, a troubling thought crossed her mind: What if horrible things were going on behind those 30-foot stone walls?
As she later recalled in her unpublished memoir, Locked Out, Rennie asked a friend, Phoebe Edwards, about the prison. “Do you ever wonder about the place?”
“Whenever I pass the penitentiary, I shudder,” Edwards said.
Together, the two approached the Christian Social Responsibility Commission of their church, St. Mark’s Episcopal in Upper Arlington, and proposed studying the prison. A committee was formed, and members named Rennie the chair. “Our inquiry sounded so innocent: Even our name was bland—the St. Mark’s Penal Study Committee,” Rennie wrote.
Indeed, the little band of suburban churchgoers seemed overmatched. They knew no prisoners, no employees, no inside men. Plus, a wall of secrecy surrounded the Pen: inmate mail was censored, visits were severely restricted, prisoners could write to family members only and complainers were punished (employees fired, inmates sent to the hole). Even lawyers representing the 58 men charged with rioting needed to get a court order to meet with their clients alone and receive mail from them. The web of rules and regulations was just as formidable as the fortresslike barrier that ringed the prison.
But Rennie was no ordinary housewife. During World War II, the Stanford graduate monitored Juan Perón’s pro-Nazi Argentine government for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as an intelligence analyst for the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. After the war, she wrote her first book, The Argentine Republic, worked for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., and co-authored with her economist husband, Robert Rennie, a regular Washington Post column.
In 1951, Columbus insurance pioneer Murray Lincoln hired Robert Rennie to work for what later became Nationwide. The family settled in Upper Arlington, and Ysabel Rennie concentrated on raising her children—albeit in her own way.
She stuck out in Arlington during that era: smart, sassy and independent—a Katharine Hepburn type. She wore pedal pushers and sandals, rode a bicycle around town and espoused liberal political beliefs in a hotbed for the John Birch Society. She also never really embraced some of the conventions of motherhood. “I don’t think I ever saw my mom do housework,” says her son Mark, an attorney in San Francisco.
While Mark was growing up, the Rennies were one of the only families in Upper Arlington with a full-time maid. That allowed her to publish two novels—The Blue Chip (1954) and Kingside (1963)—and play key leadership roles in the Ohio presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson in 1956 (getting to know Stevenson supporter Eleanor Roosevelt) and John Kennedy in 1960. “She didn’t care what people thought,” says contractor Mark Corna, who grew up with the Rennie children. “She had a value system, and she acted on it.”
In the fall of 1968, Rennie approached her Ohio Pen investigation like the intelligence analyst she used to be. She gathered publicly available information, reviewing law books and government and academic reports. She then reached out to current and former prison chaplains, an idea suggested by her friend Simon Dinitz, an Ohio State criminologist. But her first big break came when she saw a short Citizen-Journal article previewing a federal court hearing involving the Pen.
Sitting in the courtroom in late October, Rennie listened to the inmate plaintiffs—Ellie Davis Jr. and Robert Ruffin—describe how they were Maced and beaten. While in “the hole”—the prison within the prison—they had no toilet, soap or bed. They were fed two pieces of bread for breakfast and a bowl of soup for lunch (no dinner) and drank water so repulsive that Davis vomited continually and became dehydrated.
Rennie was outraged, especially when warden Cardwell took the stand and didn’t deny the allegations. Her anger then doubled when U.S. District Judge Joseph Kinneary a few weeks later ruled in favor of the prison. She fired off letters to nine Ohio newspapers describing the inmates’ testimonies and blasting the judge’s decision.
State officials already knew about her crusade. A letter she sent to Episcopal Bishop Roger Blanchard in Cincinnati was forwarded to Martin Janis, the head of the agency that oversaw the Ohio Pen. Janis wrote a condescending reply, essentially wondering why such a nice church woman was bothering herself with such matters. “The corrections officials didn’t know what to make of her,” says her daughter Alice, who now lives in Massachusetts.
Her newspaper missives caught the attention of Haskell Short, a reporter with the Scripps Howard Columbus bureau. He interviewed Rennie and Cardwell and produced a late December story headlined “Novelist’s prison letters ‘ridiculous,’ warden says.” Short included her address in the article and soon a few letters and phone calls from ex-cons, former inmates and relatives of prisoners came her way. As word spread of her probe, the trickle turned into a flood. In the months that followed, she befriended the three ringleaders—Conte, Chapman and Armstrong—through their families and developed a network of confidential informants. She met ex-cons at secret late-night rendezvous in churches, at parking garages and on street corners. Meanwhile, letters and secret documents appeared at her door mysteriously, while others reached her via an underground penal courier service: Letters were typed on onionskin, rolled into thin strips, stuffed into cigarettes and slipped to sympathetic chaplains or relatives in visiting rooms. “It was like a bad grade B movie,” Rennie wrote.
She even began to wonder if her phone was tapped, fueled in no small part by the paranoia of her informants. Rennie heard strange clickings and an echo effect and kept getting cut off in the middle of conversations. Her husband asked the telephone company to check their line, and she winced when a linesman asked loudly in earshot of a next-door neighbor, “Are you the lady that thinks her line is tapped?” (Rennie kept her sense of humor. In Locked Out, she recalled chuckling at the thought of a telephone snoop listening to her children’s “bottomless well of inconsequential chit-chat.”)
She was compiling a devastating dossier, and she wrote to Connecticut U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, the father of Christopher Dodd, a current senator representing the state. The elder Dodd, a former FBI agent, chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which was investigating the conditions of prisons in the country. Rennie impressed Dodd’s staff, and they asked her to testify. Though her information was secondhand and might not pass muster in a court of law, the committee investigators recognized she’d make an effective witness politically. After all, who was the public more likely to sympathize with—hardened cons or a straight-laced mother of four from the suburbs?
In September 1970, two years after the Pen riot that launched her crusade, Rennie revealed her findings (a litany of sexual attacks, suicide attempts, horrifying beatings, even one possible homicide) before the investigatory committee. She passed on the names of 40 guards accused of abusive behavior. But the public already knew about the most sensational part of her testimony—the massacre of 21 cats at the Chillicothe prison. In the summer, someone leaked that part of her testimony ahead of time to syndicated muckraker Jack Anderson, who publicized her claim that prison guards used a broomstick to shatter the skulls of the animals, nearly causing the grieving inmates to riot over the deaths of their pets.
Shortly after Anderson’s column was published, Ohio corrections chief Maury Koblentz resigned. “This is what captured the imagination of the press and public,” Rennie told Mitford, the author of Kind and Usual Punishment. “Judging by the letters to the editor, irate cat-lovers all over the country must have taken pen to paper to protest against the cat massacre. Several even sent death threats to the warden.”
Rennie’s testimony had a big impact. She became an even bigger heroine to inmates, and Ohio’s new liberal governor, Jack Gilligan, appointed her to the Ohio Citizens’ Task Force on Corrections, a 25-member body that would investigate the Pen and other state prisons and suggest reforms. When Ohio Pen inmates heard she was named to the committee, they called off a plan to stage another riot, an informant told Rennie.
At the end of 1971, the task force submitted its report, and a month later Rennie wrote a scathing 10-part series, “Ohio Behind Bars,” which appeared in newspapers all over the state. Though no criminal charges were filed against any prison officials, Rennie’s work did result in major administrative changes. Ohio became the first state to stop censoring inmate mail and created a new agency, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, to oversee the prison system. Also, several wardens lost jobs, staff training was increased and inmate privileges and educational programs were expanded.
Most significant, perhaps, was this: In 1973, all maximum security prisoners were transferred out of the Ohio Pen (the hospital remained in use). Reformers had been trying to shut down the lockup off and on since the turn of the century, and Rennie finally achieved the goal. What’s more, the Pen’s replacement was a vastly different place. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville boasted gymnasiums, an outdoor garden, a 25,000-volume library, well-ventilated cells with sinks and hot and cold running water. “Correction officers” wore blazers instead of guard uniforms, and “residents” were allowed to organize in self-governing communities and keep record players, tape recorders and TVs in their cells. In 1972, Rennie even received a Governor’s Award for “excellence of achievement benefiting and improving the quality of life for all Ohioans.”
The progressive period didn’t last. Violence broke out in Lucasville in 1973, leading to a crackdown on security—and two years after upsetting Gilligan in the 1974 gubernatorial race, Jim Rhodes, who was governor during the 1968 riots, reopened the Pen as the Columbus Correctional Facility. It housed prisoners until a federal court order closed it for good in 1984.
Rennie also watched ex-con friends screw up their lives. With her help, Armstrong and Chapman were paroled in the early ’70s during the more lenient Gilligan years, but both were busted again (Chapman for bank robbery, Armstrong for robbing a supermarket) and ended up spending most of the rest of their lives in prison. Chapman died at his sister’s home in Pleasant Township from lung cancer in 2001, three years after he was released from a federal prison. “They just sent him home to die,” says his brother Ed Chapman. Armstrong died at Grant hospital last year from cardiovascular disease. He had been paroled from Chillicothe Correctional Institution seven months earlier.
The most tragic case was Conte, the inmate who started the ’68 riot. In 1978, Conte revolted against his captors again: He and two other Lucasville inmates escaped from a Marion County sheriff’s deputy and went on a crime spree. They kidnapped a Delaware couple, a Columbus grocery store manager and the Rev. Maurice McCrackin, a Cincinnati prisoner rights activist who had known Conte for years. Again, Conte treated his hostages well (assuring them they wouldn’t be hurt and offering them drinks of water) and used his situation as a platform for talking about rotten prison conditions; he and the other cons told their hostages they’d rather be shot than go back to Lucasville. On the second day of his escape, Conte lost his gun in a scuffle with a hostage. He was shot and killed.
Rennie eulogized Conte in a letter to his daughter. “In all the years I knew him, he never asked me for anything except to help others,” she wrote. “When he told me something, I knew it was the truth. If he gave his word, he kept it.” But Conte’s final desperate act didn’t spark a new crusade. “We all felt very bad about what happened, but John chose his death as he chose his life,” Rennie wrote in a letter to an inmate.
Today, the Pen is gone, of course. Condos, offices, parking garages, a small park and Nationwide Arena, among other things, occupy the 22 acres where prisoners toiled for some 150 years. The only reminders of the prison are plaques near North Bank Park. Famous inmates—such as Dr. Sam Sheppard and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan—are mentioned, but Rennie is not. She and her husband retired to Sedona, Arizona, in the early 1980s and appeared never to look back. She gave her prison papers (eight boxes of letters, reports, memos, clippings and other writings) to the Ohio Historical Society and said nothing publicly after Lucasville—the prison created by the 1968 riots and Rennie’s reform movement—suffered a deadly uprising in 1993. When she died in 2006 at 88, no obituary ran in the Dispatch. (All her children live out of state.)
But the ex-cons haven’t forgotten her. Spunky Firman, the one-time barefoot bandit of the Walhonding Valley (the area around Coshocton), calls her his “godmother.” She helped him get into Ohio State when he was on parole in the late 1970s and invited him to dinners at her house in Upper Arlington. “She treated you as an equal,” says the 69-year-old Coshocton resident. “That’s what should be on her gravestone.”
Tom “Doon” Waters corresponded with her when he was doing time at the Pen in the late 1960s and the London prison farm in the early 1970s. He never met her in person, but she still made a big impression. Over a burger and beer at the Varsity Club earlier this year, the 63-year-old Franklinton resident’s eyes well with tears as he remembers a postcard she sent him from Hawaii. “I can’t help it,” he says, apologizing. “I really liked that old lady.”
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.
Editor's note: Good journalists act like scientists. Although they start out with an idea about an article—similar to formulating a hypothesis—they let the evidence direct them to the final result, which sometimes is different than the original theory.
Such was the case with associate editor Dave Ghose and his pursuit of a story that in the end didn’t resemble the one he intended. And thankfully so, because he has crafted an astonishing piece, “The Ohio Pen’s avenging angel.” Dave’s initial idea was to do a piece on the Pen riots that happened 40 years ago. I was skeptical at first, since we rarely devote a lot of space to history stories and rarely recognize any kind of anniversary. But I trusted that Dave would write an informative, compelling story.
About two weeks into his research, he came across a vague reference to Rennie that involved the FBI interviewing one of the riot ringleaders. She was described only as a suburban woman. Driven by curiosity, Dave wanted to learn more and later found additional information about her passion to change prisons—and the fact she also was a novelist.
He then came across a mention of the Ohio Historical Society holding a collection of her papers. Dave visited the OHS archives library and, as he notes, “soon realized I hit the mother lode.” There were eight boxes detailing her life and her mission to improve living conditions for inmates. The documents revealed to him a relentless, meticulous and fearless figure. While searching through her writings, he discovered a memo she wrote describing her concern that her phone had been wiretapped. He thought to himself, “This is an incredible story.”
So Dave, following the evidence, changed direction. The article would focus on Ysabel Rennie. As he started to track down people who knew Rennie, he got various reactions when he brought up her name. One former prison official sort of groaned. Contractor Mark Corna, who grew up with the Rennie children, told Dave a grin spread across his face when he heard the message left on his voice mail asking about her.
Dave even tracked down a couple of former prisoners who had served time in the Ohio Pen during that violent period. When he asked one about Rennie, the ex-con exclaimed, “She was my godmother.” He was speaking figuratively, but revealed another layer to her story: that she befriended many inmates, trying to help them turn their lives around.
This is one of those stories that a writer always will remember: the unexpected turn in direction, the discovery of a compelling, overlooked hero.
As Dave says about his journey in telling Rennie’s story, “I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.”