The Youngstown Vindicator
April 14, 2013
In the fall of 2011, Ohio became the first, and remains the only, state to sell an existing state prison to a private prison company. A study by Policy Matters Ohio found that Ohio officials were not accurate with regard to their prison privatization savings projections.
A close look at the $72 million deal transferring a state owned prison to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) suggested that rather than saving up to $3 million a year as the state projected, it could cost taxpayers millions.
However, the disappearing savings is only one of a number of growing problems plaguing the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. A new report released last month about the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, the facility sold to CCA, described gang-related violence so commonplace and drug use so rampant that many guards looked the other way out of fear of reprisals. The resulting consequence was a mass exodus of experienced prison personnel.
According to the Dayton Daily News, a contract monitor assigned to the Lake Erie prison, reported in September that he “found unacceptable living conditions of inmates being housed inside recreation areas, with no immediate access to running water for hydration, showers or the use of a toilet.”
As a result, the state docked payments to CCA this year by more than $573,000 for violating terms of the contract.
Private prisons are not the only problem nagging Ohio corrections. According to the Columbus Dispatch, in the two years since Ohio’s newest prison in Toledo began putting two inmates in the same cell to deal with overcrowding, the number of assaults among prisoners has soared.
Injuries needing outside hospital treatment have quadrupled. Two inmates have been killed since September — the most recent several weeks ago, when a prisoner was strangled with a rope in his cell.
The increase in violence is raising concerns about overcrowding, understaffing and a general sense of neglect with regard to corrections funding.
The current circumstances remind some of the conditions that existed in Ohio prior to one of the nation’s most deadly prison riots. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution near Lucasville. The riot lasted 11 days and resulted in the death of a corrections officer and nine inmates. Twelve staff members were held hostage after inmates took over a unit of the prison.
Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections’ records indicate that the current prison population is about 50,000. In 1994, there were about 41,500 inmates—the inmate population has jumped by more than 20 percent since the Lucasville riot.
Christopher Mabe, president of the corrections officers union, told the Dispatch, “Short staffing and overcrowding are the No. 1 issues today, just as they were before the riot.” The ratio of inmates to corrections officers, which rose to 8.8-to-1 in the 1990s, fell in the 2000s, but it is back up to about 7.3-to-1. That’s higher than the national average and “not acceptable,” Mabe said.
Overcrowding can create dangerous conditions for inmates and prison staff.
Cramped quarters and a lack of privacy can lead to a heightened level of tension in correction facilities. In turn, as tension grows the incidence of violence against staff and fellow inmates increase. With minimum staffing and growing supervision responsibilities, corrections officers and inmates are more vulnerable.
The inability to get into programming can adversely affect an inmate in several important ways. First, mental health issues, drug and alcohol or anger issues are not being addressed. Second, inmates who want and need the programming begin to get frustrated, and that can lead to acting out. Third, some inmates, without programming, head home without addressing their criminogenic needs.
Overcrowding and understaffing is a recipe for disaster, not only inside the prison wall — but also on the street. When an angry, frustrated, desensitized inmate hits the street without treatment or vocational training, more victims are created and correction costs continue to soar.
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