Monday, May 28, 2018
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Doubly dangerous

To alleviate growing violence at Toledo prison, the state must reduce inmate crowding and double-bunking

Violent rule infractions at Ohio’s 28 prisons, which hold 50,000 inmates, decreased last year, thanks partly to several initiatives by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC). These programs include new security classification measures and a unit management system that helps staff handle problems with inmates more quickly.

Violent infractions across the system dropped 7.3 percent last year, JoEllen Smith of the department told The Blade’s editorial page. Most improvements took place in the state’s open dormitory-style lockups, where many of the problems had occurred.

Read more Blade editorials

But a report in The Blade this week painted a different picture of the maximum-security Toledo Correctional Institution, where violence has gone up following increasingly crowded conditions and double-bunking. Program resources such as recreation and visitation have not increased with the population, which likely has increased idleness and provided inmates fewer opportunities to do something positive and blow off steam.

At Toledo Correctional, inmate assaults on correction officers and staff more than doubled last year, while the number of assaults among inmates rose nearly 70 percent. Last September, an inmate strangled another inmate, the first homicide since the prison opened in 2000. A second killing followed in March, when an inmate was strangled with a rope in his cell.

These conditions are intolerable for staff and inmates — and they ought to be unacceptable to the taxpayers who support Ohio’s $1.5-billion prison system.

DRC has, prudently, just approved hiring another 12 correction officers at Toledo, bringing the staffing level to 257. In another smart move, Warden Ed Sheldon has created merit blocks to house well-behaved inmates, separating them from disruptive prisoners.

But to ease violence at Toledo Correctional, the department must get at the root causes: crowding and double-bunking. When the prison opened in 2000, minimum-security inmates were held in a 186-bed camp. Higher-security offenders from other prisons arrived that year, but each inmate had his own cell in the main prison.

In 2011, the prison began adding hundreds of inmates, including higher-security prisoners, and started to put two inmates in a cell. After the camp was phased out that year, the inmate population rose, with double-bunking, from 950 to more than 1,600 inmates before year’s end. Prison capacity now is set at about 1,300.

Double-bunking was followed by spikes in assaults on guards by inmates and inmates on inmates. The state’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee warned two years ago that crowding could lead to more violence. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Among the problems cited by the committee: lack of laundry facilities, telephone and visiting areas, and cafeteria services for larger numbers of inmates.

DRC has reduced violence throughout the system. But new problems demand new strategies at Toledo Correctional.

Ohio must continue its efforts to reduce its massive prison population through sentencing reforms and re-entry programs. But Toledo Correctional has an immediate problem with violence that the department must fix.

DRC should increase program resources at the prison, set reasonable limits on capacity, and move to reduce or end double-bunking, at least for those offenders who are most likely to cause problems. That could take additional resources and changes in how inmates are placed across Ohio’s sprawling prison system.

The state can move to alleviate the problem. Or it can watch violence and even murder continue to plague Toledo Correctional Institution.

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