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Fatal Mismanagement at Ohio CCA Prison

In February 1998, federal judge Sam Bell ordered the Corrections Corp. of America to halt the transfer of inmates from Washington, D.C., to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NOCC), a CCA-owned prison in Youngstown, Ohio. Bell agreed with Alphonse Gerhardstein, the Cincinnati attorney representing NOCC prisoners, that CCA administrators inadequately classified prisoners transferred to NOCC.

Although NOCC is medium-security prison, many of the convicts sent there from the District of Columbia penal system were assaultive, long-term prisoners who Gerhardstein contends are properly classified as maximum security. The District of Columbia, which has a contract with the CCA to house prisoners at the Youngstown facility, may have tried to unload some of its most dangerous and troublesome prisoners on NOCC. But CCA administrators are responsible for ensuring that prisoners they accept for confinement at NOCC are appropriate for medium-security placement.

Judge Bell's ruling was prompted by the fatal stabbing, on February 22 1998, of NOCC prisoner Derrick Davis. Three prisoners stabbed Davis 15 times in the face, neck, chest and hands, according to Youngstown police.

Ironically, Davis was one of Gerhardstein's clients in the suit challenging classification policies at NOCC. Richard Johnson, one of the suspects in Davis's murder, was named in the lawsuit as someone who should not have been housed in medium security. In a legal brief, Gerhardstein called Johnson a "prototype example of [a] maximum-security" convict.

Bryson Chisley, another NOCC prisoner, was stabbed to death on March 11, 1998. Both of the murder victims were attacked in the institution's disciplinary segregation unit, where they were being confined for violating prison rules. The prison's security procedures require that no prisoners in the seg unit may be released from their cells except when handcuffed, shackled and escorted by guards.

Chisley and Davis were both in full restraints and under staff escort when they were killed by seg unit prisoners who were outside their cells without handcuffs or shackles. These circumstances, together with the fact that Derrick Davis was a plaintiff in a major lawsuit against NOCC, suggest that prison employees may have planned the murders.

Civil authorities are looking into the possibility of staff involvement in the killings, but Youngstown police complain that NOCC employees refuse to cooperate with police investigations of mayhem at the institution. Prison officials have hung up on police detectives and questioned the police department's authority to probe crimes committed at the private facility. A prison captain told police officers investigating a stabbing that he could not give any information to an outside agency because the CCA has its own investigator.

NOCC has been plagued with security problems since the 1700-bed prison opened its doors in May, 1997. More than 16 stabbings have taken place at the prison, while a total of 22 assaults with weapons occurred in Ohio's 29 state prisons, which house 48,000 prisoners, during 1997. NOCC underwent three institution-wide lockdowns in its first five weeks of operation.

Local residents may not have considered the expense of treating prisoners' injuries at local hospitals, along with the cost of investigating and prosecuting crimes committed at NOCC, when they set out to lure the CCA i to Youngstown. In an effort to bring jobs to the area, Youngstown sold CCA a 101-acre plot for $1, granted the company a five-year tax abatement and threw in free utility hookups. The city of Youngstown has now filed a motion to intervene as a plaintiff in the prisoners' lawsuit against the CCA. The city seeks a role in determining which prisoners are transferred to NOCC as well as enforcement of the provision in its contract with the company saying that NOCC will house no more than 1500 prisoners. Mahoning County, where NOCC is located, plans to bring its own suit against the CCA to recover costs it's incurred investigating crimes committed at the prison.

In the wake of the chaos at NOCC, the Ohio legislature has passed a bill that subjects private prisons to state regulation and makes private prison owners liable for costs resulting from prison riots, escapes and murders. The Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corp. is currently seeking to build a private prison in Ohio's rural Athens Township.

Sources: Akron Beacon-Journal ,Columbus Dispatch , National Public Radio.

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