Behind the walls


Twenty years after crowding and inhumane treatment helped spark a riot at the Lucasville prison in southern Ohio, many of the same problems continue to plague the state’s 28 prisons.

With roughly 50,000 prisoners, the system is about 30 percent over capacity. Inmate-to-staff ratios are only slightly better than they were in 1993, when a siege at Lucasville left nine inmates and a correction officer dead.

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The entire $1.5-billion system needs watching, accompanied by renewed efforts to reduce a prison population that is still far too high. But no prison in Ohio needs to be monitored more closely than the privately owned Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut.

Reports there of crowding, staff turnover, assaults, inhumane treatment, and other problems demand the attention of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, state lawmakers, and Gov. John Kasich.

Last November, a Lake Erie inmate died of a heroin overdose, said Mike Brickner of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which has called for greater public oversight of the prison.

Ohio sold the 1,700-bed Lake Erie prison in late 2011 to Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator. The $73 million deal was the nation’s first sale of a state prison to a private company.

Nashville-based CCA urged other states to follow Ohio’s example and sell their prisons to generate cash and cut costs. But the results of privatizing prison operations, here and around the country, raise serious questions about whether for-profit prisons can serve the broader public interest.

A report issued in February by the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found that inmate-on-inmate assaults at Lake Erie increased by 180 percent between 2010 and 2012, while inmate-on-staff assaults more than tripled. Prison disturbances doubled.

Inspectors found long waiting lists for academic programs, and areas originally reserved for re-entry classes converted to bed space to accommodate more inmates. Staff turnover exceeded 20 percent in December, with morale reportedly low because of safety concerns and mandated overtime.

Last fall, a state monitor at Lake Erie found inmates in isolation, without access to running water or toilets, forced to defecate in plastic bags. Local police had to step up patrols as outsiders tried to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the prison — in some cases even throwing duffel bags over the fence. The state docked payments to CCA by roughly $500,000 for leaving positions vacant and other contract violations.

CCA spokesman Steven Owen told The Blade’s editorial page that the company has worked closely with the state to develop a plan to fix problems, some of which preceded CCA management. Most of the issues were resolved, he said.

Last December, the American Correctional Association accredited the prison, giving it high marks. Last month, CCA appointed a new warden for the Lake Erie facility, and follow-up audits have reported some improvements.

The private prison must contractually follow state policies and procedures, said JoEllen Smith of the correction department. The department, she said, expects improvements to continue.

But state officials must take specific steps to make that happen. Lawmakers must ensure that independent, unannounced inspections continue, and that they stay informed about problems and corrective measures.

They should make sure that Ohio’s open-records laws apply to privately operated prisons. Finally, if necessary, they should consider under what conditions the state could end its contract with CCA.

To its credit, the correction department, under director Gary Mohr, has proposed sentencing reforms and reduced recidivism rates to record low levels. It has done that partly by preparing inmates for life after prison, and then assisting parolees with re-entry programs.

More newly released offenders are succeeding, instead of returning to crime and, eventually, to prison — at a cost to taxpayers of $25,000 a year each.

Even so, dangerous and inhumane conditions at any Ohio prison will jeopardize that progress and endanger inmates and staff. In the hidden world of private prisons, Governor Kasich and other elected officials must keep their eyes open.