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Shakeup in Lockdown

As Ohio prisons go private, one town gets angry

By Loretta Ashyk · June 15th, 2011 · News
Robert Shaw has been around the world, but he’s never found a friendlier place than Grafton, Ohio. The sixtyish foundry worker is spouting his rural Lorain County gospel from his perch at the Deluxe Bar on Main Street.

“It’s kind of like Petticoat Junction, except we don’t have a water tower,” says the bearded, salt-and-pepper-haired chain smoker, a reference to the 1960s sitcom about life in the mythical town of Hooterville.

Shaw and others are fuming over what’s happening to their hometown — and the fact they have no power to stop it.

Hooterville, they believe, is getting sucker-punched. In early April, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) put five Ohio prisons up for sale, including two of the three found in Grafton. Gov. John Kasich hopes the sale will raise $200 million to help soothe the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit. The buyer of those prisons is also expected to run them, and the ODRC expects results: Savings of at least 5 percent compared to the costs of state-run institutions.

Quick cash. Long-term savings. The job of managing prisoners gets done. What’s not to like? Plenty, according to many residents, prison employees, village officials and elected leaders in Grafton.

“Everybody’s mad,’’ says Ethan Danico, who has lived down the street from Grafton Correctional Institution for 20 years. He works at a local plastics molding company and hangs out at the Trading Post, a crossroads tavern near the prison.

“Right now, the prisons are fine,” he says. Besides, Grafton has housed the prison industry for decades without the slightest of problems. Why change a good thing? Why wrestle good-paying jobs away from locals?

“I work too hard — 60 hours a week and pay my taxes,” says Danico, “to make some politicians and their friends rich.”

Contracting of public services and selling public assets tends to force a divide along ideological lines: Those who believe government should shed as many functions as it can and those who believe it should maintain its role in managing public safety and assets.

But the issue is more than ideological; when the dust settles, there will be real-world winners and losers in the village of 2,600.

Village administrator Rick Kowalski calls Grafton “The Prison Capital of the World,” and there seems no reason to argue the claim. More than twice as many people live inside its prison walls than in the rest of the town combined.

Grafton’s three prisons sit on more than 1,000 acres of land. Grafton Correctional is now a medium-security facility for a general male population. Lorain Correctional Institution processes short-term offenders, from low- to maximum-security, with sentences of 90 days or less. The smaller North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, already privately operated since opening in 2000, is designed primarily for felony DUI offenders.

Grafton and North Coast will be sold to the highest bidders; Lorain will remain in state hands.

Grafton was built in 1988 and Lorain Correctional in 1990, at a time when rural towns across the nation began welcoming prisons as a way to boost sagging agricultural and manufacturing economies. States, overwhelmed by exploding inmate populations as a result of tougher sentencing laws, looked to build where more land was available, away from urban centers.

But the relationship between the state and its small prison towns is about to change. Much of that change has to do with who will work for the new owners and how much they will be paid. Private prison owners will be required to offer the same types of services as their state-run counterparts, from educational programs to medical and dental services. So when it comes to slashing costs, observers say, there are few ways other than cutting staff.

Grafton Correctional has a total of 361 employees, some of whom live in town and all of whom pay taxes to it. Wages start at around $33,000 per year (about $16 an hour) and top out at $43,000.

At North Coast, which is privately operated by Management and Training Center Co. of Utah, wages start at $13 an hour, according to Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the ODRC. Nationwide, private prisons pay about one-third less than state-run facilities. Further savings at North Coast result from slashed employee benefits via fewer vacation and sick days.

But at least the bosses aren’t suffering. Executives and managers at North Coast make about 20 percent more than their state-run counterparts, thanks to bonus pay and incentives.

The bid application issued by the ODRC to potential buyers states that the winning bidder should give preference to — but isn’t required to hire — workers already employed at Grafton.

Private prisons argue that their presence is a boon to small towns because, unlike state-owned facilities, they will be forking over property tax revenue. Every $100 million in property value would reap $1.3 to $1.7 million, according to the ODRC’s LoParo.

Area schools will receive most of that windfall, Kowalski says. If the village itself collects anything, it won’t be enough to offset the projected losses in income tax from the sale. And with those losses, other village services and personnel could suffer.

Opponents of privatization cite the fall 2010 incident in which prisoners escaped from a privately run prison in Kingman, Ariz., and murdered two people. Subsequent investigations found that lack of experience and training due to high turnover rates contributed to the fiasco.

A review published in April by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ohio chapter reveals a higher turnover rate among personnel at privatized prisons and a higher rate of both inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-staff assaults.

(Loretta Ashyk is a writer for Cleveland Scene, where this article first appeared.)



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