Conflict of interest brewing as Ohio confronts prison overcrowding

Ohio’s prison system is facing a severe overcrowding crisis. With facilities hovering around 130% capacity, prison chief Gary Mohr considered declaring an overcrowding emergency for the first time in the state’s history. This would have granted early release to prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, but those plans were inexplicably scuttled less than a month ago.

It was unclear what the alternative strategy would be until Governor John Kasich released his budget proposal last week.

Kasich’s proposal calls for increasing the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) budget from $1.62 billion to $1.72 billion by 2017. It also doubles the budget for prisoner addiction services and commits $58 million to pursuing sentencing alternatives for low-level, nonviolent offenders over the next two years.

But without plans or programs in motion to immediately reduce the number of people behind bars in Ohio, the ODRC’s new money will likely be channeled into increasing staff levels and, potentially, signing new contracts with private prison companies to reduce the burden on state facilities.

While a final budget has yet to be approved by the state legislature, the proposed increases put Director Mohr in a position that deserves serious scrutiny.

Mohr worked for the private prison contractor Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) for a number of years before his appointment the lead the ODRC in 2011. In 2005, Mohr advised CCA “in areas of staff leadership and development, and implementing unit management.” He later worked as a managing director at CCA from 2007-2009.

When he was chosen to lead the ODRC in 2011, Mohr and the governor made a point of pledging that the director would recuse himself from any negotiations with CCA, which runs two prisons in the state and has deep ties to the Kasich administration. Indeed, that same year, Mohr recused himself from a negotiation involving his former employer.

Mohr had been advocating community alternatives to incarceration as recently as last month. But around the time the he abandoned his pursuit of early release, Mohr told reporters that he had been approached by Ohio legislators urging him to pursue a contract with CCA, which had just lost its contract with the federal government at the troubled Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown.

That should have raised some red flags on its own. But Mohr is now saying he’s already met with CCA, which means he directly broke the pledge he and the governor made in 2011.

Jona Ison at the Telegraph-Forum reports:

Mohr said the recent meeting with the organization, his former employer, did not result in any definitive decision and no future meetings have been scheduled.

Mohr said he’ll be “very involved” with the discussion on what to do, noting his three decades of service with the state prison system.

“I will make the final decision with this, and my relationship with CCA will have absolutely nothing to do with the decision,” Mohr said.

I reached out to Mohr’s office for clarification twice last week, asking if the director would recuse himself from negotiations with CCA as he had promised in 2011. If he would not, I asked for a justification. I have not received a response, but I’ll update the post if I get one.

There are plenty of other options available to deal with overcrowding, but if Ohio decides to increase taxpayer funding for incarceration and explore the possibility of a contract with CCA, it should first address Mohr’s conflict of interest.

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