The state once again can start moving inmates out of the Lima Correctional Institution, a court of appeals decision released yesterday said.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed the ruling by a lower court that barred the state from shuttering the Lima-based prison. In its decision, the three-judge panel ruled that the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has the authority to make the decision to close the prison and that Gov. Bob Taft has authority to implement such recommendations.
The ruling came as a surprise to the union members who have fought since January, 2003, to keep the prison open. If the prison is closed, employees either will be laid off or bumped to other facilities. Yesterday, attorneys for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association met to discuss the next step.
“We are very disappointed because we believe we had a good constitutional argument,” union president Ron Alexander said in a news release.
“Our attorneys are continuing to study the written decision of the Appeals Court and review our options,” he added. “We will also be talking with representatives of our LCI chapter and other union leaders with the goal of making a decision about the future of the case in the next 72 hours.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas, who has argued the case on behalf of the union, couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.
Governor Taft had scheduled the prison to be closed by July 12, 2003, to save $25 million a year. That plan was thwarted by Allen County Common Pleas Judge Richard Warren, who in August halted the shutdown, saying that Governor Taft usurped his authority when he authorized the closure.
Judge Warren agreed with union attorneys who claimed the prison could only be closed by an action of the General Assembly, which created it in 1982. With a permanent injunction, Judge Warren stopped the transfer of prisoners and the release of layoff notices to the prison's employees.
The appeals court decision was in line with what the state has argued since last year when Lima first was identified for closure, said Orest Holubec, the governor's spokeman. He said the ruling will help the state complete budgetary goals outlined last year.
“The governor agrees with the decision. It confirms what we've been arguing in court all along,” he said.
Craig Bradford, president of the local union representing prison employees, said he expects the state to start moving the rest of the prison's inmates right away. He said the ruling just added an influx of people to a prison system that already is bursting at the seems.
In particular, Mr. Bradford cited the dangerous conditions that the state would be creating if prisons become overpopulated.
“Everybody can see that the state did not prove that they don't need this facility,” he said. “They did not show that they did not have the money, and they kept arguing that this is a money issue; they did not prove that. They also did not prove that they don't need the space.”
Andrea Dean, spokesman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the state's prison population was 43,861 as of Feb. 2. That number is down 7 percent from the year before, she added.