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An appointee of Gov. John Kasich, Gary Mohr has been director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for nearly three years, overseeing 28 prisons, 11,745 employees, more than 50,000 inmates, and a $1.5 billion budget. On Thursday, he sat down with Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jeff Gerritt at Toledo Correctional Institution. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Q. With more than 50,000 inmates, the Ohio prison system is already 30 percent over capacity; recently, the population has started to rise again. What kind of problems will that cause?
A. I’m worried about it. Our population went down, from May, 2011, to June, 2012, for 53 straight weeks. Our research team calculates that House Bill 86 (sentencing reforms) has saved 700 prison beds. Despite that, since June of 2012, we’ve been on a constant incline, and we’re now, as of Tuesday, at 50,317. We’ve gone up every month since June of 2012. I don’t know why. Law enforcement is getting a lot more effective and efficient. There has been a big effort to reduce the pill mills and the availability of drugs. That’s great, but it doesn’t deal with the desire for drugs. Now we’re seeing an unprecedented increase in heroin. In my opinion, if we don’t stop this trend by July of 2015, I won’t have the capacity to manage the system.
Q. I know you’re feeling pressure to build more prisons. How do you feel about that?
A. I’ll tell you how I feel, and I’ll tell you how the governor feels: We don’t think that’s a good thing. But if we don’t stop this trend of population, I will have to build and then they’ll replace me as director because I will have failed. I will step down and my people know that. It’s not the right thing to do.
Q. More than 95 percent of prisoners here and around the country will eventually go home, yet most prisons offer inmates few opportunities to change. You’ve made rehabilitation a core part of the department’s mission. Why?
A. It’s a value I believe in my heart. I believe that inmates are human beings. That doesn’t sound profound, but we have 787 collateral consequences under Ohio statute that limits or prohibits inmates from having jobs, living in certain places, and other restrictions. We really do look at them differently. My mission and vision is to create opportunities where people can go out and be successful. Ninety-seven percent of these inmates are coming back to society. I’ve had the ability to make reforms with the governor’s support because he has the fundamental belief as well that people can change.
Q. How has that philosophy translated into policy and practice?
A. Many ways. We’ve put unit staff back in the units. Before, the unit managers, case managers, and correctional counselors were taken out of the units as a cost saving, leaving the officers to be not only the sheriff in town but also the person who deals with an inmate’s family emergency. Frankly, we had abandoned our officers. It cost us about $10 million, but we put unit staff back in the units to deliver evidence-based programming to change behavior. We also have to deal with the scourge of drugs because 80 percent of the people coming into our prisons have a documented history of drug and alcohol abuse. To deal with the root cause, in the last budget, we’re doubling the therapeutic communities in this state from two to four for drug dependent people. We’ve also entered into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to provide support after people are released. We have re-entry coalitions that care about returning citizens and are now reaching into prisons, meeting people before they come out. We have Welcome Home videos in 35 counties that provide names and numbers for resources. We need to talk about the 71.3 percent of our inmates who were released from prison three years ago who have not come back.
Q. In controlling the prison population, what kind of help can you get from the General Assembly?
A. I’ve met with the president of the state Senate, the speaker of the House, Ohio’s chief justice, the attorney general, and obviously the governor to talk about our population issue. We’re looking at a legislative approach to recodifying the criminal code. There hasn’t been a comprehensive analysis of the code since 1996. Every time there’s a bill in the criminal code, it’s almost always to increase a penalty or to make a new law. We have to look at the whole picture over the past two decades, including the number of misdemeanors that have grown into felonies — and whether all those penalties are driving up prison population.
The second thing we’re doing that we need legislative support for is increasing funding to local communities for evidence-based (alternatives to prison). Right now, 43 percent of the people coming to prison are doing less than 12 months. We don’t have enough time to give them appropriate programming before they leave. So wouldn’t it make sense to keep some of those folks — nonviolent, drug, and property people — in the community, and put them in evidence-based programs? It will reduce our population and also improve public safety.
Q. Those are good long-range solutions. What can you do now to affect the population?
A. We’re starting reintegration units where prisoners learn skills needed to be successful upon release. These people work 8 to 12 hours a day. We can take parole violators — technical violators who aren’t hurting anyone — and put them in reintegration units immediately. We can reduce the time parole violators spend in prison when it’s much more intense and meaningful. Also, 23 percent of our intake consists of probation violators. The average prison stay for probation violators is 375 days. But with a judge’s discretion, we could agree to put them in a reintegration unit and, if they successfully complete the program, cut their time to five months. That fairly quickly would have an impact on our population but also be a public safety enhancement. They’re working, doing community service, and doing pro-social activities. You’re building a sense of responsibility and accountability with these folks.
Q. Violence in the Ohio prison system is down, but Toledo Correctional facility has had four homicides in 13 months. You’ve hired Vincent Nathan, a corrections and security consultant and lecturer at the University of Toledo, to review and evaluate prison operations. What’s going on at TCI that’s different?
A. If you look at the configuration of the housing units and physical design, and the ability to keep people meaningfully occupied, we need to decrease our population here. We made a commitment this morning with the president of the union to not just add staff but look at what we’re having staff doing. This place started 13 years ago. We’ve got a different population. I think it’s time to look at how we’ve got people situated and what we’ve got people doing. That’s the first step, along with trying to figure out what our population is going to get to.
We’ve got some real strengths, and we need to build on them. I asked an inmate today what was important to him: Visiting. This prison is in an urban community where a lot of the inmates come from. People can visit. We did a study and we know visitation reduces incidents and reduces recidivism. Our own study shows moms make the biggest difference. We’re looking at things like how we can enhance visiting and provide more of it. We’re asking people who do the work here how to make the prison safer.
We’re looking at movement — when you have people in open areas, hallways — and how we can improve the management of that.
Q. About 1,000 inmates are double-bunked at TCI. Do you plan to reduce or eliminate double bunking?
A. We’re going to reduce it. I’m not going to say that we’re going to eliminate it because I’m not going to create a [dangerous] situation at another prison to eliminate double-bunking here.
Q. This month, the department removed TCI’s deputy warden, Alan Chapman. Are you considering changing wardens as well?
A. No. I’m going to be very disappointed if I read negative stuff about this warden. I believe in that guy. (Mr. Mohr points to Warden Ed Sheldon across the table.) If there’s any failure in this whole operation, it should be me. We’re providing Ed with support. In the last week, we’ve given Ed an experienced correctional guy, John Coleman, as his deputy warden. We have Vincent helping us shape a plan that we’re going to stick to. I have a high degree of optimism about Toledo.
Q. Up to seven suicides in Ohio prisons have been reported this year, including the death by hanging of prisoner Ariel Castro last month. What is the department doing to prevent further inmate suicides?
A. Suicides are horrible. Ohio is — I’m not happy about this — either at or just below the national average [for prison suicide rates]. All of our restrictive housing people who go into those posts should be specially trained. We’ll have to work with our labor folks to ensure that a condition of working in those posts is to go through this training. We have put in place the requirement for supervisors to randomly review videotapes of rounds — so we’re not just looking at officers’ logs. We’ll have a report with recommendations by Nov. 15, but training will be a big part of what we do.
Q. Many people in the General Assembly want to increase privatization. But isn’t there a conflict between the private motive of a private company and the rehabilitation efforts you champion?
A. That’s a very good question, and it’s a fair question. When I came into Ohio, we had two privately operated prisons. We have two privately operated prisons now, which are required by law. I don’t have any plans whatsoever to privatize any more prisons.