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Published: Friday, 3/9/2012

Prison reform

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Ohio's overcrowded prisons are getting a needed makeover, building on previous gains and focusing on turning inmates into productive citizens.

Gary Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, unveiled a plan this week to reorganize state prisons into a tiered system based on levels of control. Disruptive, violent inmates would be separated from the rest of the prison population. That will make other inmates safer and allow officials to focus on rehabilitating inmates in the general population and reintegration groups.

Under the new system, the Toledo Correctional Institution would house mostly general-population inmates. Its population, around 1,473, likely would decline slightly. But as many as 288 beds would be set aside for more-violent offenders.

Under the reforms, inmates who complete rehabilitation programs and behave well gain privileges and move up to less-controlled settings. Those who get in trouble lose privileges and move to more-secure environments.

Prisoners who want to change their lives will have the safety, security, and resources to do so, Mr. Mohr said. Rehabilitation programs will be based on evidence to determine what works.

The state will seek closer relationships with communities to support inmates when they re-enter society. Mr. Mohr, an appointee of Gov. John Kasich, praised Toledo's re-entry efforts and said he wants a similar coalition in each county.

Inmates at reintegration facilities will get job training, with a goal of having jobs waiting for them when they get out. Mr. Mohr said he wants them to work eight-hour days before their release. Research shows that inmates who get job training are less likely to go back to prison.

The changes in prison organization follow sentencing reforms that took effect last fall. Those reforms allow many nonviolent and first-time offenders to be diverted to community programs.

Mr. Mohr said the reforms have cut the prison population. Ohio's 29 prisons, designed to hold 38,000 inmates, had housed more than 50,000 for more than three years. But for the past nine weeks, the number has been below 50,000.

Ohio's three-year recidivism rate also is down. About 31 percent of inmates released in 2008 went back to prison. That's three percentage points lower than the state figure for 2007, and well below the national rate of 50 percent. Ohio's rate is made more impressive by the fact that because of diversion programs, prisons today have a higher percentage of violent inmates than they did decades ago.

Even so, the Corrections Department reported that violent incidents against other inmates and prison staff declined between last summer and last fall. At the same time, violent incidents that involved four or more people have risen -- an indication of gang activity in prisons.

The tiered system addresses gang violence by isolating offenders, yet treating each inmate and situation individually and offering offenders opportunities for rehabilitation. "I want every inmate to have the support to work through the system," Mr. Mohr said.

Ohio's prison director said he is no liberal when it comes to the treatment of inmates. But after four decades in the business, he believes the best way to cut crime, reduce recidivism, and save money is to give inmates hope and the tools to build a better life. He's right.



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