Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Still a long way to go

Despite improvements in recent years, Ohio’s prisons remain overcrowded, dangerous, and inhumane

Ohio’s prison system has improved greatly in recent years, but better is far from perfect. A recent Blade report shows how much work remains to be done.

State prisons house 30 percent more inmates than they were built to accommodate. That situation is dangerous and inhumane — and asking for trouble.

The answer is not to build prisons, nor to privatize current ones. The state needs to continue developing — and to fund adequately — options to incarceration.

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Gov. John Kasich has been pragmatic and forward-thinking about trying to reduce the state’s prison population. His corrections director, Gary Mohr, has stressed prisoner re-entry.

And it is working. The state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says 1,243 inmates were housed in the Toledo Correctional Institution last month — 253 fewer inmates than the year before.

Ohio spends $1.5 billion a year on corrections, compared to about $2 billion a year on education. The nation spends $37 billion a year on the federal prison system. And prisons don’t generally produce better citizens.

Alternatives to prisons make sense on many levels. By contrast, a prison system that is 30 percent over capacity endangers guards and creates the possibility of a violent eruption.

Twenty years ago, after a riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville ended in 10 deaths, the state hired 900 new corrections employees. All of those jobs have been eliminated, along with 771 other corrections workers who have been laid off because of more recent budget cuts.

Overcrowding and correction-officer cutbacks increase violence inside prisons. Two Toledo Correctional Institution inmates were recently slain, allegedly strangled by fellow inmates. One in six prisoners is a gang member.

It’s hard to muster public sympathy for the deaths of prisoners. But greater prisoner-on-prisoner violence is a warning: Overcrowded prisons are powder kegs that can ignite with little friction.

The toughest policy issue is creating an alternative system to human warehousing. Ohio has done a good job, between Mr. Mohr’s re-entry strategies and Sen. Rob Portman’s advocacy of the Second Chance Act, which helps ex-prisoners find housing, social services, and jobs.

The 700,000 Americans who are released from prison every year need health care, psychiatric social workers, job training, and job placement counselors. If, upon release, they don’t get options to the life they knew before prison, and quickly, they will return to that life.

The rehabilitation system is expensive. But it’s less expensive than building prisons and hiring more prison guards.

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