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Ohio Nearly Closes 100 Year Old Asylum/Prison

In April 2002, state budget cuts threatened to force the closure of Orient Correctional Institution near Columbus Ohio. Orient originally opened as a mental asylum in 1902 and was converted to a prison in 1984. The closing would have relocated 1,747 prisoners and displaced 533 employees. Eliminating Orient's $41.9 million annual operating cost was supposed to offset a $19 million budget shortfall and would have been the first Ohio prison ever to close due to money problems. For a time the facility seemed doomed.

Prison chief Reginald A. Wilkinson had originally considered closing one of the state's private prisons that do not employ state workers. He changed his mind, however, when Ohio Civil Service Employee's Association (OCSEA) would not negotiate a concession on "roll-call" pay.

For 15 years guards who show up 10 minutes early for their shift have received 30 minutes overtime called roll-call pay, an entitlement which costs the state $21 million a year. Officials argued that the concession would easily have covered the shortfall and was necessary to keep the prison open. However, employees were only willing to give up one hour of pay weekly.

Lawmakers and union officials decried the closing. Irwing Sarfield, executive director of OCSEA, complained. The state has "chosen to put the lives of employees, the public and prisoners at risk by closing a large state facility." Union representative, Don Sargent, said over crowding caused a riot at Lucasville prison. "We are setting ourselves up for that again," he said.

State Senator Steve Austria disagreed. "...I am confident the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections took many factors into account when making their difficult decision to close [Orient]."

Wilkinson agreed that the closing was "a dramatic option," but insisted it was necessary. Closing Orient would have left the prison system at 118 percent capacity. A figure Wilkinson calls manageable. Prison spokeswoman Andrea Dean defended Wilkinson's decision saying, "We looked very closely at where we are placing these inmates. We don't anticipate any problems with overcrowding." Another option, the release of prisoners held long past their minimum terms, was not even discussed.

When the closing seemed imminent, Senator Michael C. Shoemaker was extremely angry and extremely vocal. He and other elected officials had assured Orient residents that the prison would be a source of stable, good-paying jobs. He told the media, "I'm afraid we're here today to say we've broken that promise." The promise of prison generated welfare for rural communities, that is.

Wilkinson said that Orient's condition and location were major factors in his decision. Several of its 19 buildings are nearly a century old and in need of extensive repair. The facility also sits on a 55 acre site along with two other prisons which remain open. Wilkinson surmised that closing down Orient would not be as economically devastating to local residents as it would to a community that had only one prison as its main employer.

Even though Orient had already moved many of its 1700 plus prisoners in anticipation of its April 21 closing, the union responded by filing an unfair labor practice claim against the state alleging retaliation. Union officials argued that cuts should be made at the central office where Wilkinson works. The tactic worked. Don't remove the racks and shackles yet, Orient is pressing towards another century.

At the same time, a second prison is sinking state finances even further. Situated directly atop a reclaimed strip mine, one building of Belmont Correctional Institution has already been rendered completely useless while the walls and foundations of several other buildings are cracked and crumbling. The walls of the administration building and the prisoner health center have cracked so badly that daylight shines through even though the facility is barely 7 years old.

Wilkinson said his primary concern in deciding which prison to close was the effect the closing would have on the local economy. Orient is one of three prisons in Pickaway County. Belmont, about 100 miles east of Colombus, stands alone.

State Officials have known about Belmont's problems from the day it opened in 1995, at a cost of $32 million. Still, they are determined to keep the facility operational. Robert Yennemeyer, CEO of Design Group International says, "We are working with the State and the original contractor to help identify the source of. the problems and the appropriate fix."

Belmont warden Art Tate Jr. is not optimistic. Given the depressed state of Ohio's economy he is convinced that repairs of the collapsing prison are "not on anybody's fast track." Tate also expressed his concern about prisoner safety. One of them "could be injured and file a lawsuit," he said. A true humanitarian.

Sources: The Columbus Dispatch ,Madison Valley Press , and Columbus Bureau

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