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Prison Privatization Blues

State audit reveals failures of Ohio’s newest private prison

By German Lopez · October 10th, 2012 · News
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A state audit of the private prison sold by Gov. John Kasich last year found the prison is only meeting 66.7 percent of the state’s standards. The report, released last week, found a total of 47 violations in a northeastern Ohio prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which the state government sold to CCA last year as part of a privatization push set out in Ohio’s 2012-13 budget.

The news comes two weeks after CityBeat published a story looking at the many problems presented by Ohio’s policy to privatize prisons (“Liberty for Sale,”  issue of Sept. 19). 

The violations noted in the Ohio Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (ODRC) audit range from staff training problems to poor food quality, with some inmates feeling unsafe due to the lack of control among prison staff.

“It was apparent throughout certain departments that DRC policy and procedure is not being followed,” the audit said. “Staff was interviewed and some stated they are not sure what to do because of the confusion between CCA policy and DRC policy. Some staff expressed safety concerns due to low staffing numbers and not having enough coverage. Other staff stated that there is increased confusion due to all the staffing transitions.”

The findings shine some light into why ODRC Director Gary Mohr might have decided to stop privatizing Ohio’s prisons — at least for now. On Sept. 25 — the same day the audit was mailed to Mohr’s office — Mohr announced that his department would focus on sentencing reforms to bring down recidivism instead of privatizing more prisons to save costs. 

Despite Mohr’s comment and the audit, Rob Nichols, Kasich’s spokesperson, says the governor’s stance on privatizing prisons hasn’t changed and “everything remains on the table.”

Mohr is one of many in Kasich’s administration to have previous connections to CCA.

He advised the private prison company “in areas of staff leadership, and development and implementing unit management,” according to the ODRC website. Donald Thibaut, Kasich’s former chief of staff and close friend, now lobbies for CCA. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine also helped CCA reopen its Youngstown facility in 2004 with a federal contract during his term as U.S. senator.

The audit confirms much of what CityBeat found in its in-depth look at private prisons. The studies cited in the Sept. 17 story — including research by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio — found multiple issues in private prisons around the country. The troubling findings were typically attributed to lower standards at private prisons that keep costs low and profits high. The lower standards are coupled with a private prison’s need to house as many inmates as possible, contrary to public interests of keeping re-entry to prisons low.

The report says, “there has been a big staff turnover,” and only one staff person was properly trained to meet Ohio Risk Assessment System standards. The audit found that a workplace violence liaison wasn’t appointed or trained. Inmates complained they felt unsafe and that staff “had their hands tied’” and “had little control over some situations.”

The local fire plan had no specific steps to release inmates from locked areas in case of emergency, and local employees said “they had no idea what they should do” in case of a fire emergency.

The audit also found all housing units provided less than the required 25 square feet of unencumbered space per occupant. It found single watch cells held two prisoners with some sleeping on the floor, and some triple-bunked cells had a third inmate sleeping on a mattress on the floor. 

Searches in general seemed to be a problem for CCA. Documentation showed that contraband searches were only done on 16 days in August. When the searches were done, the contraband was not properly processed to the vault and was sometimes left in desks. CCA also could not provide documentation that proved executive staff was conducting weekly rounds to informally observe living and working conditions.

Some of the other findings: Inmates claimed laundry and cell cleaning services were not provided and CCA could not prove otherwise, recreation time was not always allowed five times a week in segregation as required, food quality and sanitization was not up to standards, infirmary patients were “not seen timely,” patients’ doctor appointments were often delayed with follow-ups rarely occurring, the facility had no written confined space program, the health care administrator could not explain or show an overall plan and nursing competency evaluations were not completed before the audit was conducted. 

The findings do not come as a surprise to the ACLU, which repeatedly warned CityBeat of problems at private prisons during interviews for the Sept. 17 story.

“It doesn’t make any difference to them whether or not a person eventually integrates back into society,” said Mike Brickner, communications and public policy director at ACLU. “Looking from a cynical approach, it actually helps them if that person (is convicted again) because they come back into their prison and they get money off them again.”

This isn’t the first time Ohio has had found trouble with private prisons. Poor standards were also found in a Youngstown prison run by CCA in the 1990s. In 1997, the Youngstown prison was opened by CCA to house 1,700 of the nation’s most dangerous criminals. Within one year, 20 prisoners were stabbed, two were murdered and six escaped. The ensuing public outrage led to higher standards at the facility. The stricter rules were credited for leading to the prison’s eventual closing as the facility was quickly made unprofitable for CCA.

Steve Owen, spokesperson for CCA, responded to the audit in a statement: “CCA is taking concrete corrective steps to ensure that this facility meets not only the ODRC’s goals but our own high expectations for our facilities. We are working in partnership with the ODRC on a development plan, which will lay out a road map to meet our goals, and our team will meet bi-weekly with ODRC staff and officials until we have this matter resolved.”  ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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