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. Continue reading

Two prisons by Billy V, on Flickr

Emergency early release taken off table as Ohio considers options for prison overcrowding

As prisoners, advocates and journalists warned of deteriorating conditions in Ohio’s prisons over the past year, the inmate population slowly crept back up to around 30% over capacity.

During that time, prisoners in the buckeye state were fed spoiled, inedible meals by the food contractor Aramark, sometimes tainted with maggots. They also suffered abuse and abysmal conditions at private prisons operated by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), bad enough to inspire a 14-hour peaceful protest. Have the events of this past year finally generated enough misery and public scrutiny to pressure Ohio officials to act?

Without the funding to add more beds to the prison system, Ohio Prison Director Gary Mohr was initially considering reducing the inmate population through ’emergency early release.’ According to the law, Mohr could declare an overcrowding emergency, recommending some nonviolent prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences for early release. This declaration must be approved by Ohio’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), which includes members of the state legislature and oversees prisons in the state. If the CIIC disagrees with or ignores the declaration, it is sent to the Governor for a final decision.

Mohr had asked the state assembly to make some ‘changes‘ to the early release law, but declined to specify exactly what those changes would entail. The law is just shy of 20 years old and has never been used before. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be used any time soon, either: the Coshocton Tribune reports that Mohr is now saying early release is “not going to happen.”

It’s not hard to understand why that may be. Continue reading

"Private Prison Industry, USA by War on Error1, on Flickr

Federal Government Drops CCA Contract in Ohio, But Remains Committed to Private Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has decided not to renew Correction Corporation of America’s (CCA) contract to hold around 1,400 low-level federal inmates at the North East Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) in Youngstown.

As the deadline for renewal approached, the for-profit prison contractor launched an aggressive PR and letter-writing campaign focused on “the value of CCA” in the community and the jobs that Youngstown could lose without the contract. Prisoners and advocates sought to instead  raise awareness about the facility’s ugly history of violence and mismanagement under CCA, and in August, 240 inmates staged a 14-hour peaceful protest against poor conditions, high commissary prices and abuse and mistreatment by prison guards.

In the end, the BOP decided to let their contract expire on May 31st of this year. CCA spokespeople told reporters they were not briefed on the government’s reasoning. They are seeking meetings with federal officials and are planning to mount an appeal in the coming days.

What is clear, however, is that the BOP has not lost confidence in for-profit incarceration. Most if not all of its prisoners at NEOCC will be transferred to two separate private facilities operated by GEO Group: the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center in Phillipsburg, PA (which, like NEOCC, holds immigrant prisoners) and the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton, Oklahoma (which was vacant and is now being reactivated thanks, at least in-part, to this contract).

CCA will continue to hold some 580 prisoners for the US Marshals Service at NEOCC.

The federal government appears to be warming up to the idea of improving prison conditions, but it does not appear ready to give up on the private prison experiment. This would require a confrontation with the for-profit incarceration industry that they’ve now helped become deeply rooted in communities across the country. Continue reading

Prison News Round-up for Oct. 28, 2014

There are far too many stories out there that I want to write about, but I just don’t have the time to fully cover them. So occasionally I’ll be posting a collection of important stories from around the country with some thoughts and notes where appropriate.

This week:

1. Vermont Lawmakers Quiz the State’s Private Prison Company
2. Lawsuit accuses Aurora private prison of paying immigrants $1 a day
3. Meet the controversial private prison corporation, Geo Care, that may run Terrell State Hospital
4. Prison panel suggests broader menu, more recreation for inmates at Ohio facility
5. Pope Francis blasts life sentences as ‘hidden death penalty’
6. 19-year-old dies naked on cell floor of gangrene; lawsuits target deaths in Madison County jail
7. Senators ‘Deeply Concerned’ by Plans to Detain More Immigrant Women and Children
8. Virginia prison system faces $45 million shortfall in inmate health care
9. 10-Year-Old Murder Defendant Shows Failure of U.S. Juvenile Justice System

Here’s my take on these stories… Continue reading

Aramark Towers

Ohio Prison Inspection Committee Makes Preliminary Recommendations to Aramark

Ohio is taking baby steps towards improving food service in prisons served by Aramark.

The state’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC) has published preliminary recommendations for Aramark. Some of them are punitive and include measures that go beyond what other contractors might expect.

But others point to Aramark’s failure to do the most basic tasks required in food service.

Several of CIIC executive Joanna Saul’s recommendations should be routine at any establishment. I couldn’t believe Aramark hadn’t been doing these things in the first place: Continue reading

Mentally Ill School Shooter TJ Lane Escapes Violent, Overcrowded Ohio Prison

UPDATE: Lane has been captured. What’s next?

In April, Ohio’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC) inspected the Allen Oakwood Correctional Center. They found the facility overcrowded and over capacity, but still gave it ‘high marks.’

The committee noted that one of its main concerns was the conditions of confinement for “higher security inmates […] including ones in the Protective Control Unit.”

The CIIC also noted that, although there hadn’t been any escapes, there were at least two attempts in the past two years. There was also a growing number of violent incidents taking place at the prison, with an astounding 60% increase in inmate-on-staff violence from 2012-2013.

News outlets are reporting tonight that 19 year-old TJ Lane and one other inmate have escaped from Allen Oakwood. Lane was in the high security protective custody area the CIIC had warned staff about, and it seems conditions haven’t much improved in the past five months. Continue reading

NEOCC

Peaceful Inmate Protest Highlights Dysfunction and Disservice of CCA’s Ohio Private Immigrant Prison

There is rightful anger at Correction Corp. of America’s failures in response to a 14-hour, 250-inmate protest at their for-profit Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Ohio. But any critique that does not discuss the actual protest and its context is missing the point.

Inmates appear to have reached a breaking point in their tolerance for poor living conditions at NEOCC, and given CCA’s alarming track record at the facility, we should be paying close attention:

CCA first operated a for-profit prison in Ohio when it opened NEOCC in 1997. In its first 14 months of operation, the facility experienced 13 stabbings, two murders, and six escapes. The city of Youngstown eventually filed a lawsuit against CCA on behalf of the prisoners. Even after those tragedies, CCA still operates the prison today.

These inmates knew they would be risking severe punishment and retaliation for their decision to disobey orders to return to their cells. They knew this action could provoke violence from militarized guards, or a possible stint in solitary. They knew they could lose access to their families and communities through a punitive reduction in visiting hours and phone calls.

Still, in light of these potential consequences, between 250 and 400 of them decided it was still worth doing for 14 whole hours. Even as guards began preparing chemical munitions and setting up command posts to confront a peaceful demonstration, the prisoners refused to back down.

CCA should have been completely transparent about the protest from the beginning, but instead attempted to keep the situation under wraps. After all, it doesn’t make CCA look good for there to be allegations of mistreatment and mismanagement, nor when inmates are disobeying commands in order to protest about them. Continue reading