COLUMBUS - The director of Ohio's prison system told lawmakers yesterday that hundreds of correctional positions would be slashed from the payroll and warned that another prison could close if the state's budget scenario further tightens.
"It's going to be unavoidable," said Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "There is no way that we can meet the terms and conditions of this budget without reducing staff in our correctional facilities. We have no intention of putting any of those persons in harm's way as a result."
Staffing at Ohio's 32 state prisons and central administration office has declined by 1,906 positions since 2001. The state closed Orient Correctional Institution in 2002 and followed that with the closing of Lima Correctional Institution last year.
Meanwhile, total prison population has remained largely stable at nearly 44,000 inmates, despite a record number of new commitments last year.
"I just have this fear that two years from now we're going to be talking about a lawsuit because so many guards were injured or killed in an episode," said state Rep. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville). "History has shown when you put people closer together with fewer guards, that's a sure-fire formula for disaster."
Tim Shafer, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association's Rehabilitation and Correction Assembly, noted that the lost positions in the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction since 2001 represent 60 percent of the total reduced state work force in that time period.
"We all remember 1993, April 11, the Lucasville riot," he said. "It was a direct result in the number of inmates, the staffing numbers. We're treading dangerous waters right now. Continuing to cut our front-line employees is only going to make the waters more dangerous."
The 11-day riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution at Lucasville left nine inmates and one guard dead.
The department is one of the few areas of the budget seeing actual spending increases under the two-year, $51.4 billion budget proposed by Gov. Bob Taft last week. The department would have a 2.6 percent increase in 2006 to $1.48 billion and a more modest 1.7 percent hike in 2007 to $1.5 billion.
The overall budget, which Mr. Taft has characterized as the tightest in 40 years, would climb 1.1 percent in 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2007.
Mr. Wilkinson said he believes Mr. Taft's numbers are the best the department can expect as the budget moves to the General Assembly. He said a contracted salary hike for employees next year, rising medical costs, and a lawsuit that could force the state to spend tens of millions more on medical care leave the department in an uncertain position, even with the modest funding increase.
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