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Youngstown Break-Out Leads to Political, Financial Fall-Out

On July 25, 1998 a half-dozen prisoners, including four convicted murderers, cut through two fences and escaped from the CCA-operated Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio. According to Warden Jimmy Turner the successful break-out was due to errors by prison employees -- including guards leaving their posts, not watching their designated areas and not promptly responding to motion sensor alarms.

The escape was the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents at the problem-plagued facility, which houses approximately 1,500 prisoners from Washington, D.C. [see PLN , Oct. 1997; June 1998]. CCA previously had been under a court order to remove maximum-security prisoners from the medium-security prison. Michael Quinlan, the company's director of planning, promised that CCA would learn from its mistakes and would improve staff training at the facility.

Ohio lawmakers, however, weren't interested in apologies or excuses. State Senator Jeff Johnson observed that the escape highlighted a major distinction between privately-operated and public prisons. "I've been to Ohio prisons, and we have some problems," he said. "The difference is if the manager screws up and lets six people escape in broad daylight, we have the authority to get him out of there."

Also of concern was CCA's response to the break-out. A Wall Street Journal article revealed that the first motion detector alarms went off at 1:06 p.m., though the escape was not reported to local law enforcement officials until two hours later. According to Youngstown police captain Robert Kane, when officers arrived at the facility they initially were told there was no problem even though armed prison guards were searching the surrounding fields and woods. Said Kane, "In my opinion the escape was not reported promptly or properly." Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey was more blunt, stating, "The facts lead one to believe there was an attempt to deceive the police or cover up the event." CCA termed the suggestion of a cover-up "ridiculous."

Following the escape Ohio Governor George Voinovich announced he was seeking a way to close the Youngstown facility, but a legal analysis by the Attorney General's office concluded that the state had no authority to do so. Ironically the governor's brother, Paul Voinovich, a prison architect, had lobbied the city of Youngstown for the facility and served as a consultant to CCA.

U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) quickly pushed through the House an amendment calling for a federal study on prison privatization that would examine security procedures. "The on-going problems at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown should serve as a wake-up call to the nation," Traficant said. "We need to identify possible security and personnel shortfalls at private prisons and effectively address them." Further, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), a member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, stated that he would seek a hearing on classification problems at the Youngstown facility.

Wall Street reacted negatively to news of the escape: CCA's stock slid 20% to a 52-week low within ten days of the incident. Brian Ruttenbur of Suntrust Equitable Securities, a finance firm that encourages investment in private prison companies, termed the Ohio situation a "public relations problem." CCA spokeswoman Peggy Lawrence called criticism directed against the Company "very frustrating" and "very unfair."

Meanwhile, agents with the U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Marshals Service began an investigation into whether a CCA guard had assisted with the break-out. Company officials declined to comment publicly; however, Doctor R. Crants, CCA's C.E.O., admitted in a 1etter to Governor Voinovich that they suspected "a single female employee collaborated with inmates to plan the escape."

Five of the escapees were captured within two days and the sixth was caught more than a month later. Under an Ohio law enacted last March, CCA will have to reimburse city, state and federal authorities for the cost of the search.

On August 3, 1998, CCA announced it would transfer about 200 close-security prisoners from Youngstown to other facilities within thirty days; U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said they would be moved to federal prison or a state facility in Virginia. Federal and D.C. authorities are also establishing a full-time monitor at Youngstown.

Wall Street Journal, Columbus Dispatch, The Alliance Review (OH), Tennessean, Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)

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