Prison’s acts failed to halt homicides

Toledo Correctional added staff; too few, union says

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  • After the murder last year of Bradley Hamlin at Toledo Correctional Institution — the prison’s first homicide since it opened in 2000 — prison officials took steps to curb an upswing in violence and a rising inmate population.

    The measures, which included more employees working nights and weekends to handle inmate disturbances, and a second investigator to look for problems, were taken months before Arturo Lopez was strangled inside his cell by another prisoner.

    In April, a month after Lopez’s death, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction again beefed up security at the maximum-security prison in North Toledo by bringing nine more corrections officers on staff.

    Despite the efforts, the prison went on to record two more murders: James Oglesby, who was attacked with a metal baseball bat in the recreation area in August, and the deadly assault of Michael Dodson on Oct. 6.

    With four murders in a 13-month span, the Toledo prison ranks as the deadliest of the 28 institutions in the state prison system.

    According to state data, Ross Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison near Chillicothe, and Pickaway Correctional near Orient, which houses minimum and medium-risk offenders, have had three murders each since 2007. Nineteen of Ohio’s prisons have been without homicides since 2007.

    Assaults, fights, and disturbances at Toledo Correctional have been growing since 2011, when the prison began bringing in maximum-security prisoners from and around the state, increasing tension among rival gang members, and putting two inmates in each cell to deal with overcrowding statewide. And, according to a prison watchdog group, employee turnover in Toledo is among the highest in the state.

    Between 2010 and 2012, the prison investigated 136 incidents of inmate-on-inmate assaults.

    Nearly two years ago, the prison carried out a series of changes in response to the rising inmate population and escalating violence.

    According to JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, well-behaved inmates were isolated from violent offenders and housed in a merit dorm. Extra surveillance cameras were installed, including the prison’s perimeter, to catch contraband going across fences.

    Despite the measures, union leaders say violence among prisoners continues and the changes introduced by the warden, including the hiring of more officers, have had little impact.

    “They are trying to hire as many people as they can, but the problems are, they can’t hire enough,” said Angela Brandel, a prison guard for 10 years in Toledo and president of the local union chapter.

    Ryan Ochmanek, a corrections officer and union steward, said more staff is needed.

    “The mood inside the prison is that we need more staff. We have too many inmates. We’re overcrowded and, with double-bunking, we need more staff,” he said.

    “This is a new breed of inmates. They don’t really have a fear. They don’t care. They do whatever they want like they just don’t care. They think they are untouchable,” Mrs. Brandel added.

    According to correction department employment figures, the total prison staff at Toledo is 347, down 16 workers from January, 2011. The institution employed 243 correction officers in January, 2010, and 232 are in those positions at the prison now.

    The double-bunking and transfer of more violent offenders to the Toledo prison began after Gary Mohr was appointed Ohio’s prison director by Gov. John Kasich, a decision he made shortly after taking office in 2010.

    He was unavailable to be interviewed, a spokesman said.

    Dodson, Toledo Correctional’s latest homicide victim, entered the institution in November, 2010, after his conviction in Seneca County in the January, 2004, stabbing of a clerk during the robbery of a Subway in Fostoria. A jury found the former Tiffin man guilty of attempted murder and aggravated robbery nearly six years after the crime. Judge Stephen Shuff determined that Dodson was a repeat violent offender and sentenced him to 40 years for the crimes.

    Guards found Dodson, 38, in his cell Oct. 6 after he was allegedly assaulted by his cellmate. He was taken to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center that morning, where he later died. The Lucas County Coroner’s office said he died from blunt-force injuries to his neck and head.

    As early as 2011, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislatively established committee that monitors activities of prison facilities, had warned in a report about problems after an inspection of the Toledo prison.

    The committee said inmate resources, such as visitation and telephone areas and laundry and cafeteria services, were too small for the overcrowded conditions.

    In a follow-up visit several months ago, the watchdog group released a lengthy report critical of assaults and disturbances, employee turnover, drug use, and the murders.

    The committee said inmate-on-inmate assaults increased nearly 113 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults jumped nearly 74 percent from 2010 to 2012.

    Overall, the state prison population, now at more than 50,000 inmates, has increased 11.1 percent since 2003 and is expected to rise by another 3,000 inmates by 2019, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee said.

    Mark Brickner, an attorney and spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the lack of money to adequately staff prisons coupled with overcrowding have created a dangerous situation.

    “Clearly there are problems in the Toledo Correctional Institution that need to be addressed. However, there are also issues with the entire system,” he said.

    Staff writer Taylor Dungjen contributed to this report.

    Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.