After four fatalities in the past 13 months, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction took decisive, if belated, action last week to reduce crowding and violence at Toledo Correctional Institution. It has stopped sending prisoners to TCI, which will reduce the population by about 40 inmates a month, as they continue to transfer out but not in. Another 60 prisoners whose security levels already had been lowered will move to other prisons.
Those two steps should reduce the population at TCI — now at about 1,260 — by at least 100 prisoners by year’s end. How much lower the population will go depends largely on how long the state maintains its freeze on incoming transfers.
Ideally, the state ought at least to lower the population to 900, the prison’s official capacity, or even further to end double-bunking altogether. Now, 1,000 TCI inmates are double-bunked. More than 200 more maximum-security prisoners are single-bunked.
The problem of violence lies mostly with lower-risk, double-bunked inmates, who accounted for three of the prison’s four fatal assaults. Correction department director Gary Mohr told a Blade editor during a visit to the prison last week that he was committed to reducing double-bunking at TCI. But he wouldn’t commit to ending it, arguing that such a move could elevate crowding to dangerous levels at other prisons.
Adding prisoners to other institutions carries risks. Yet violence is down throughout the system, state officials say. The immediate priority ought to be making TCI safe. It is the state’s deadliest prison — by far.
Four homicides in 13 months is extraordinary. The entire Michigan state prison system has had only two such fatalities in seven years.
Nor is any of the state’s other 27 prisons even close to matching Toledo’s record. Nineteen of Ohio’s prisons have been without homicides since 2007. Ross Correctional Institution near Chillicothe and Pickaway Correctional near Orient have each had three murders since 2007.
Mr. Mohr is committed to increasing programs and visitation at TCI to reduce idleness and tension — another good move. In a candid interview, he conceded he had not given TCI Warden Ed Sheldon enough help. Mr. Mohr must talk with prison employees and their union, which warned about the dangers of crowding a year ago and continues to propose ways to reduce crowding.
TCI, which opened in 2000, was designed as a high-security prison, with little space for programs and recreation. Mr. Sheldon improvised last year by building a track and basketball court inside a small courtyard, but further such expansions will be difficult.
A strapped state budget will also make it hard to increase programs, but the community can help. Mr. Sheldon said he needs volunteers to work in the prison, especially skilled laborers who can talk to prisoners about vocational training.
Statewide, fewer than 4 percent of inmates — roughly 1,850 — are classified as maximum-security, Level 4 prisoners. One alternative would be to convert all of TCI to Level 4, instead of housing both Level 3 and Level 4 inmates there.
That option, however, would diminish visiting opportunities for general-population inmates. TCI is one of only three prisons in Ohio’s major urban areas, where most of the 50,000-plus inmates come from.
Studies show that family visitation reduces violent and disruptive incidents in prison. It also lowers recidivism. Isolating inmates from their families is bad policy, undermining the department’s mission and re-entry initiatives.
With four deaths at Toledo Correctional Institution in barely more than a year, the state should make ending double-bunking, adding staff, reducing idleness, and increasing programs at the prison its immediate priorities.