The alternative press hangs its hat on in-depth news features and investigative journalism, and CityBeat’s news reporters through the years have enjoyed a unique amount of freedom to pursue stories other local media either don’t prioritize or won’t touch. (By “enjoy freedom” we actually mean they can wear T-shirts to work most days….)
Reporter German Lopez consistently poked around statewide issues we believed local media were ignoring. His 2013 coverage of the Kasich administration’s sale of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) furthered and validated an earlier investigation he’d done on the private company that had mismanaged and closed another Ohio prison in 1997.
Prisoners told CityBeat about fights, lockdowns, staff ineptitude and unsanitary conditions inside the Lake Erie facility, accounts backed up by audits and surprise inspections from the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), Ohio’s independent prison watchdog. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has also detailed poor conditions and a rise in criminal and violent activity there.
One report described a building being flooded with toxic fumes after a fresh air supply fan broke, causing many inmates to be carried out to the prison’s medical wing on stretchers and treated for illnesses. Another found “unacceptable living conditions” including evidence of urine in plastic containers inside the recreation area and inmates using plastic bags for defecation.
A CIIC report concluded that personal safety was at risk in the CCA facility and that prison staff made matters worse with improper use of force and sanctions. The staff was poorly trained, overworked and lacked experience, according to the report, with high turnover and low morale. All while CCA raked in a per-diem for each prisoner and an annual ownership fee from the state, adding to the $162.5 million in net income the company posted in 2011.
On top of such damning evidence against the current setup and the concept of prison privatization itself, the following connections made the situation look all the more dubious from the outside: ODRC Director Gary Mohr was a former CCA employee; Donald Thibaut, former chief of staff for Kasich when Kasich was still in Congress, worked as a CCA lobbyist; and when he was U.S. senator, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine helped CCA reopen its Youngstown prison in 2004 with a federal contract.
Even stranger? The taxpayer-funded ODRC repeatedly dodged CityBeat’s interview requests, at one point corroborating a written response with prison-operating company Management and Training Corporation, which was not the main focus of our story but manages several Ohio prisons.
“For the two prisoners CityBeat corresponded with, the incident involving toxic fumes represented broader problems at the prison regarding health and sanitation — problems first picked up by an ODRC audit.
“CityBeat first heard from the second prisoner’s mother shortly after the toxic fume incident. The mother, who was concerned her son’s life was in danger, asked CityBeat in an email for information regarding transferring her son and attached a letter from her son detailing the event.
“ ‘Last night some crazy shit happened,’ the prisoner wrote. ‘A lot of people in our building started getting sick, so they evacuated to the rec hall. Couple people were stretched over to medical and whatnot. They say it was carbon monoxide I think. They really didn’t tell us. They didn’t even call the fire department.’ ”
Ohio officials show no signs of yanking Lake Erie Correctional Institution from CCA, but they have pulled back on previous commitments to privatize more state prisons. Despite initially planning to sell five prisons as part of its 2011-12 budget, the state completed only the Lake Erie/CCA deal and Gov. Kasich hasn’t pursued further privatization in his two budgets since.
The state has taken some actions against CCA, at one point docking the company nearly $500,000 in payments. ODRC spokesperson JoEllen Smith said the deductions weren’t directly linked to the official audits but were instead a result of staff vacancies and contract violations related to “an extended vacancy in education” and “unacceptable conditions in segregation.” The state also threatened further penalties if CCA didn’t fix problems raised by the ODRC audits and CIIC inspection.
Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols told CityBeat last year that the governor’s stance on privatizing prisons had not changed and called the 2011 Lake Erie sale to CCA “the right decision.”
As Republicans continue their march to outsourcing and privatizing as many government functions as possible — from prisons to schools to highways — CityBeat will continue to shine light on their dubious actions.