Inspection Finds Improvements at CCA-Owned Ohio Facility Following Rocky Start
A September 2013 re-inspection report cited improvements in conditions at a privately-owned prison near Cleveland, Ohio compared to an inspection performed a year earlier, when state auditors identified numerous areas of non-compliance with state standards and conditions so bad that prisoners were living in mold-infested housing units without running water or working toilets.
Inspectors with the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), Ohio’s independent prison watchdog agency, said not all of the problems previously identified had been fixed at the 1,800-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LECI), operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – but their September 2013 report indicated the prison was “heading in a positive direction.”
CCA had purchased LECI from the state in 2011 for $72.7 million, and Ohio pays the company an annual fee and per diem rate to house prisoners at the facility under a 20-year contract with a guaranteed 90% occupancy. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.16].
“The CIIC inspection team’s overall sense is that conditions have improved,” the report stated. “CCA has poured significant resources into the prison, including removing or changing staff, hiring on former (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) staff, investing in additional security measures, and bringing in outside consultants.”
Despite those remedial actions, the CIIC team found that some areas showed little or no improvement over conditions cited during a January 2013 inspection. Specifically, “primary concerns” at the prison included “safety, security, and inmate discipline.”
For example, CIIC auditors found that incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence continued at a pace to match 2012’s record increase in the number of assaults at LECI. Following the January report, which noted a 180% increase in prisoner-on-prisoner violence and 300% increase in prisoner-on-staff assaults, CCA replaced the warden at the facility.
The re-inspection, conducted on September 9 and 10, 2013, was published the following month. Unlike the January 2013 audit when CIIC conducted a surprise inspection, the prison had advance notice of the September review.
The latest inspection report also found some areas in which conditions at the prison had worsened, including a “significantly higher percentage” of prisoners who tested positive for illegal substances during the first eight months of 2013 compared to the same period a year earlier.
“Heroin was like it was legal in there,” said a former LECI prisoner who was released in September 2013. “I wouldn’t have had to get out of bed to get heroin. I could have had it delivered to my bunk, there was so much.”
Inspectors also voiced concern over disciplinary actions and use of force by CCA staff, as well as levels of serious misconduct greater than those at similar minimum- and medium-security Ohio state prisons. The number of grievances filed by prisoners remained higher than during the years before CCA assumed control of LECI, although the number was down slightly compared to the January 2013 report, which had also cited “a high presence of gang activity and illegal substance use” and “frequent extortion and theft.”
The inspectors reported they had received various complaints from prisoners about medical and recreational services at the facility, though the audit did not specifically address those areas. They also noted that most of the CCA guards who were interviewed reported low or very low morale due to low wages.
Violations discovered in an earlier September 2012 audit of LECI included non-compliance with health, safety and administrative standards – ranging from poor food quality and sanitation to inadequate medical staffing, neglect of segregated prisoners, emergency unpreparedness and unsafe storage of hazardous materials.
Critics said the results of that audit indicted that CCA was “woefully unfit for the job” when it bought LECI from the state and began operating the facility on January 1, 2012. The company had touted the purchase as a model for other states wanting to reduce their corrections budgets and raise cash through the sale of prisons, but problems arose almost immediately.
The ACLU of Ohio reported that the September 2012 audit found “outrageous violations” at the CCA facility. In a blog post, Ohio ACLU senior policy director Mike Brickner described incidents such as “prisoners being forced to use plastic bags for defecation and cups for urination because they had no running water for toilets. Basic conditions were heinous, with black mold, standing water, and spoiled food found throughout the prison.”
Within two months CCA had corrected many of those deficiencies, such as cleaning the black mold and replacing broken water fixtures, Brickner wrote, but he noted that “major problems like severe overcrowding, expanded use of solitary confinement, and inadequate medical care were simply left as ‘pending’ – a polite governmental term for ‘not done.’”
Another issue was the smuggling of contraband into the prison, especially drugs, alcohol and cell phones. The problem grew so serious, the ACLU said, that police started night patrols at the facility to catch people throwing contraband over the perimeter fence.
Local police assumed jurisdiction over LECI from the state highway patrol following the CCA takeover because Ohio law prohibits the highway patrol from policing privately-owned facilities.
Among the more egregious violations cited in the September 2012 inspection report were conditions in LECI’s segregation unit. The report found that CCA had failed to ensure adequate medical care for segregated prisoners or provide proper oversight of the disciplinary system. CCA was also in violation of Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) policy by triple-bunking prisoners in segregation units, and guards failed to provide those prisoners with at least one hour of daily exercise or sufficient laundry and bedding.
Less than two months later, according to a November 2012 re-inspection, most of those issues had been corrected.
“The conditions of confinement within the segregation area were vastly improved,” the November report said. “It is anticipated [triple-bunked cells] will be eliminated in the very near future as collaborative transfer efforts between LECI staff and the DRC Bureau of Classification staff action continues until completed.”
The September 2012 report had also noted that administrative staff at LECI, including the warden, assistant warden and department heads, did not visit the prison’s living and recreation areas on a weekly basis to communicate with prisoners and observe conditions, as required by DRC policy. The November re-inspection, however, found that administrators had started conducting regular rounds.
The increase in compliance was apparently evident to prisoners, who, according to the re-inspection report, “were complimenting the change in atmosphere and ... felt better about how the process was going.”
While LECI’s medical facilities “did appear to be calm and [were] better organized and staff was knowledgeable of DRC policies,” the November 2012 report still found that “staffing levels are not where they should be” and recommended that “vacancies be filled as soon as possible to ensure staff has the resources needed to complete the required tasks.”
LECI was accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA) following a December 2012 audit, in spite of the deficiencies cited in the various CIIC inspection reports.
Sources: “LECI Audit Reinspection Report,” Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (Nov. 15, 2012); LECI Inspection Committee Report, Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (Sept. 9 and 10, 2013); www.drc.state.oh.us; www.aclu.org; http://citybeat.com; www.muckrock.com; www.wkyc.com
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