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Private Prison Woes in Ohio

Less than two years after it opened, the second privately operated prison in the state of Ohio is already in trouble. CiviGenics, a private prison company out of Massachusetts, has succumbed to pressure applied by the state employees union. On January 10, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC), Reginald A. Wilkinson, informed CiviGenics that when its contract expired on June 30, 2001, it would not be renewed. CiviGenics lost the contract because of failure to maintain adequate qualified staff and security requirements.

By law, the North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility is obligated to contract with a private operator. Officials for the state employees union feel that the law should be changed. They feel that by combining the 550 bed North Coast facility with the 1,400 bed Grafton Correctional Institution, the state would save between $4 million and $6 million in operating costs. Union staff member Pat Hammel points to the fact that only 500 prisoners are currently housed at the North Coast facility. Under the union proposal, 200 prisoners from the Grafton facility could move in immediately.

North Coast was originally designed as a treatment center for non-violent felons convicted of drunken driving. It was found that nearly 10 percent of the current prisoners were convicted of violent crimes. According to Hammel, the population at North Coast is slated to grow at a rate of less than 5 percent per year. Louis Leonard, a licensed counselor and Union member, agrees that the union plan would upgrade the current regimen. He pointed out that CiviGenics was unable to maintain an adequate number of qualified counselors, and at times filled positions with unqualified workers. At one point the state withheld payment of $74,499 when it found that CiviGenics was billing the state for workers not on the payroll.

Roy Ross, chief executive of CiviGenics, blames union opposition for the collapse of the $14.9 million contract. According to Ross, "Union opposition to a private sector role in managing Ohio prisons, even specialized treatment-oriented facilities, has been vehement and determined." He accuses union leaders of having a "closed shop mentality" and explains that union opposition is responsible for CiviGenics inability to find qualified staff since its private employees depended upon training by state workers.

State officials have mixed reactions to the union's proposal. Department spokesman, Joe Andrews, does not believe that the North Coast treatment facility should be controlled by the prison system. While he is unsure whether or not current laws will be changed to favor the union, he says that several other bids are anticipated.

State Representative Kevin J. Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga, supports the idea of private prisons, but he also believes that the state should have a chance to bid. He says, "True competition involves all possible players." He extends the invitation for everyone to "sharpen your pencils and bring your best bid." Everybody, that is, except CiviGenics.

Source: Columbus Dispatch .

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