Trouble at TCI

Michigan’s prison system has had fewer murders in the past seven years than have occurred in one Ohio prison in one year

Conditions at the Toledo Correctional Institution are deplorable for staff and inmates.
Conditions at the Toledo Correctional Institution are deplorable for staff and inmates.

Violence appears to be out of control at the Toledo Correctional Institution. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction must make whatever changes are necessary, including in leadership, to fix the problem.

Last week, a state committee reported significant increases in assaults, high employee turnover, low staff morale, backlogs for medical attention, an understaffed recreation department, and frequent drug trading. But most troubling of all were the prison’s three homicides, as well as a suicide, during the past year.

To put that egregious statistic in perspective, the Michigan Department of Corrections, which oversees a similar-sized prison system, has reported only two homicides in the last seven years. That’s fewer than have occurred in one Ohio prison in one year.

These conditions are intolerable for staff and inmates — and they ought to be unacceptable to taxpayers who support Ohio’s $1.5-billion prison system. Among other things, the department should review population levels, double-bunking policies, how it classifies prisoners, prisoner programming and idleness, and staffing levels and training. It should also examine the physical plant, as well as how it monitors and handle groups that pose security threats, such as whether members of rival gangs are housed in the same prison. Finally, DRC ought to determine whether program resources for inmates have increased with the population and inmates have sufficent opportunities to do something positive and blow off steam.

Accountability starts at the top. Warden Ed Sheldon may be, under the circumstances, doing an outstanding job. Given the prison’s record, however, DRC must evaluate Mr. Sheldon’s performance to determine whether the prison needs new leadership.

The 164-page report from the nonpartisan Correctional Institution Inspection Committee found that inmate-on-inmate assaults increased nearly 113 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults increased nearly 74 percent from 2010 to 2012. The report noted those spikes accompanied double bunking and an increase in violent offenders at the prison to deal with statewide crowding.

Since September, 2012, three inmates have been killed at TCI. The most recent prisoner death — James Ray Oglesby — occurred on Aug. 21, three days after the 32-year-old prisoner was beaten by at least two other inmates with metal baseball bats in the recreation yard.

The population of the Toledo prison is 1,270, down from more than 1,600 in late 2011, said DRC spokesman JoEllen Smith. But the prison was designed to hold about 900 inmates. Most of the inmates — about 1,000 — are double bunked.

Toledo is a designated control prison, designed to house high-security inmates, Ms. Smith said. There are now 216 of them at TCI, though Ms. Smith said none of the high-security inmates are double bunked.

Still, crowding and double-bunking are aggravating tension and violence. Higher-security prisoners from other prisons arrived soon after the prison opened in 2000, but each inmate had his own cell. In 2011, the prison began adding hundreds of inmates, including higher-security prisoners, and started to put two inmates in a cell. Double bunking was followed by spikes in assaults. The Correctional Institution Inspection Committee warned more than two years ago that crowding could lead to more violence — hardly rocket science.

With roughly 50,000 prisoners, the Ohio prison system is about 30 percent over capacity, though violent infractions statewide actually decreased last year. 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.

With 28 prisons, Ohio must increase efforts, including sentencing reforms and re-entry programs, to reduce a prison population that’s far too high. But the Toledo prison faces an immediate problem with violence that the department must fix.

DRC has taken steps to reduce violence, including adding staff and increasing video surveillance, but also it will likely need to bolster program resources, set reasonable limits on capacity, move to reduce or end double bunking, and determine whether it is classifying prisoners properly.

Lawmakers must ensure that independent inspections and monitoring continue. Toledo Correctional Institution must become safe again for inmates and staff.