Auditors uncover problems at private prisons in Ohio

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During the past year, unsafe and unsanitary conditions were documented by state monitors at one of Ohio’s privately-run prisons forcing the new operator to make major changes less than one year after taking control of the facility.

At the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, which is now owned and operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, state-employed monitors and auditors found conditions that included inmates not having immediate access to running water or toilets and using plastic bags for defecation and cups for urination.

Under CCA control, inmate complaints about prison gangs, assaults and other problems have doubled since the state turned over control, staff turnover has been more than 20 percent and violent incidents increased 21 percent inside the medium-security prison, according to public records.

The prison is located on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, just east of Cleveland.

“This year we began managing the Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LaECI), and while we received an initial audit score for the facility that did not meet our high standards, both a re-inspection from the state and an extensive audit from the independent American Correctional Association (ACA), which recommended accreditation with a score of 99.06 percent, confirm our commitment to ensuring that LaECI is operating at the highest quality,” CCA spokesman Steven Owen said in a statement.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s administration sold the facility to CCA for $72-million and turned the keys over on Dec. 31, 2011 to the publicly traded company. Operation — but not ownership — of the North Central Correctional Complex in Marion was turned over to another private company, Management & Training Corp. of Utah.

Privatizing two prisons is estimated to save taxpayers $10.4 million this year, Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections officials said.

Contract Monitor Will Golar, who is assigned to the CCA-owned Lake Erie prison, reported in September that he “found unacceptable living conditions of inmates being housed inside recreation areas, with no immediate access to running water for hydration, showers or the use of a toilet.”

“That’s an extremely serious, serious violation and a serious issue that obviously we addressed very quickly and then CCA in turn addressed it very swiftly as well,” said Linda Janes, DRC chief of staff.

Golar also documented kitchen floors being mopped with such dirty water that the floors were left a darker shade, dirty drinking cups that had to be wiped out before being used, and two inmates painting a mural in the entry building but they were ineligible to work in that area because they are convicted killers.

An internal audit conducted in September uncovered:

* Padlocked fire exits;

* Meat slicers without safety guards and other food safety violations;

* Likely falsification of food service records;

* Clogged water fountains;

* Moldy showers;

* Unsecured cleaning chemicals;

* No guards monitoring “pill call” — when inmates receive medications.

Staff also reported that they felt unsafe and guards carried pepper ball guns into the chow halls as a show of force, according to the September audit.

The state docked payments to CCA this year by more than $573,000 for leaving positions vacant and violating terms of the contract.

After the report, CCA disciplined several employees.

“We swiftly took action, disciplining 14 employees from officers to supervisory staff,” Owen said. “The disciplinary actions ranged from unpaid suspension to counseling and retraining. Quality conditions in the segregation area have since been reaffirmed during the State’s recent re-inspection and the subsequent ACA audit.”

Janes chalked up the problems to the addition of 300 beds to the Lake Erie facility and bringing in Corrections Corporation of America, which had not previously worked in Ohio under DRC’s extensive rules and policies.

But Joanna Saul, director of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, said that CCA initially retained 97 percent of the staff who were already working at the Lake Erie prison.

“These reports are obviously very concerning. I certainly hope that strict attention is being given to improving,” said Saul, whose agency conducts unannounced inspections of each state prison every two years. The CCA-owned prison is due for an inspection next year, she said.

Saul said her office has seen the number of complaints from Lake Erie inmates jump to 125 so far this year, compared with 63 for all of 2011.

One letter writer from the CCA-owned prison says his life is in danger: “I have a hit out on me by gang members, Heartless Felons.” Another writer says his brother is being forced to carry out a gang hit on another inmate. And a third says the rehabilitation programs keep getting canceled because of staff shortages.

Inmate complaints from the North Central Correctional Complex, run by MTC, have also doubled this year compared with 2011, Saul said. Most of the complaints are about health care, which is typical in most prisons across Ohio, she said.

Violent incidents at the North Central prison have declined 41.8 percent this year compared with last year when it was state-run, according to DRC records. MTC spokesman Issa Arnita attributes this in part to taking over a well-run facility.

“We are very proud of our outstanding management team and correctional officers. They have done a wonderful job of building on an atmosphere of respect and accountability. We have been very consistent in communicating with offenders and staff in dealing with any issues before they grow out of control,” Arnita said.

MTC previously ran the Lake Erie prison for more than a decade but won the contract to operate the North Central prison in Marion.

Over the past 12 months, the state monitor assigned to the MTC-run prison in Marion issued memos about the company leaving nursing shifts vacant, failing to line up medical specialists to provide care, and having more than 1,000 inmates backlogged for the chronic care clinic. The state of Ohio deducted $436,677 from its payments to MTC for these and other contract failures.

And just recently, internal auditors cited MTC for failing four of 57 mandatory standards and six of 38 non-mandatory standards. The internal audits were conducted to prepare both prisons for accreditation by the American Correctional Association in February.

Arnita said MTC anticipates its North Central prison will earn accreditation and management will make further improvements next year.

“During the first year, we focused primarily on safety and security, placing our greatest efforts in these areas. We will continue this moving forward; however, we also plan to expand and improve the various educational, career, and life skills courses we offer at the facility,” he said. “MTC is dedicated to providing offenders with meaningful programming that we believe helps reduce recidivism.”

Auditors cited CCA for failing 47 standards in September but a re-inspection in November found almost a miraculous turnaround. “Congratulations on the many accomplishments achieved in such a short amount of time,” wrote DRC Audit Administrator Michelle Burrows to Warden Barry Goodrich at the Lake Erie prison.

Janes acknowledges that DRC’s switch to privatization has not been flawless.

“This was a significant change for Ohio so we certainly expected some bumps in the road. Obviously, those audit standards showed some significant issues and other less serious but items that we still take very seriously and want to make sure that they are rectified,” Janes said.

Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association and a long-time prison worker, was less charitable about CCA’s performance so far. And he complained that the state prison department is giving free-of-charge help to CCA in the form of staff training and gang assessment.

“Their audit is a disaster,” said Mabe, who represents state workers including 10,000 in the prison system. “We believe the incarceration of human beings should be left up to the judicial system and the public trust. When you leave incarceration up to a for profit company, it’s a bad deal for everybody.”

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