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Judge denies request to halt sale of 5 prisons

COLUMBUS -- A Franklin County judge yesterday refused to stand in the way of Ohio's plan to sell five prisons and then contract with some of the new private owners to house inmates.

But he left the door open for a possible voter referendum on the plan, which could yet throw up a roadblock.

Common Pleas Judge Pat Sheeran plans to explore the issue further at a Sept. 13 hearing.

The lawsuit filed by the liberal advocacy group ProgressOhio and a number of prison employees remains alive even as the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction plans to announce today the winners of the sales contracts.

Judge Sheeran, a Republican, ruled that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that they would suffer irreparable harm if he didn't issue an immediate temporary restraining order against the plans.

He noted that the execution of contracts and job layoffs will take time.

In contrast, he found that such an order could cause harm to the state.

"Failure to proceed will result in a loss of considerable revenue to the state of Ohio,'' the judge wrote. "This loss of revenue will have a profound effect on ODRC employees, because the loss of revenue must be made up somewhere.…"

He noted that the department had indicated prison closings and layoffs could occur "somewhere."

While state law prohibits a referendum on appropriations bills, Judge Sheeran preliminarily determined that the sale of prisons, even though included in the $55.8 billion, two-year budget, is not an appropriation. If he opens the door and opponents of the plan file petitions to put that section to a vote of the people, it could put off sale of the prisons until at least after the November, 2012, election.

"This is just one act in a long journey through the court system," said Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgessOhio. "We are disappointed in this initial ruling, but the judge clearly indicated in this decision that the denial of the right of referendum is problematic for the defendants."

Three companies have offered bids for four adult prisons and one juvenile detention facility, but the bid amounts won't be revealed until today. Early on, the state projected that the sales could garner $200 million.

The bidders include Tennessee's Corrections Corp. of America, Florida's GEO Group Inc., and Utah's Management & Training Corp.

Gary Mohr, Gov. John Kasich's director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, is a former consultant for CCA, but has said he would not play a role in deciding the winning bids. CCA operates a private prison for the federal government at Youngstown but does not run any Ohio-owned prisons.

The prisons on the auction block are Grafton Correctional Institution in Lorain County, North Central Correctional Institution in Marion County, and the closed Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility, all state-run facilities, and Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Ashtabula County and North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility in Lorain County, both state-owned but privately run facilities.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496. 

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