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Will Ohio’s Prison Watchdog Agency be Silenced?

On May 25, 2016, Joanna Saul, 33, the executive director of Ohio’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), was forced to resign due to infighting between the bipartisan prison watchdog agency, Republican legislators and Governor John Kasich.

Saul first touched a nerve when the CIIC aggressively pursued transparency in prison inspections and issued reports on drugs, violence, gang activity and prison staffing. She again stepped on political toes when she exposed problems at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.44]. Further, CIIC inspections led the state to fine private food vendor Aramark $272,000 for maggot outbreaks in prison kitchens and multiple incidents of employee misconduct. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.1].

Republican lawmakers wanted to disband the CIIC, claiming that Saul had displayed “insubordination and rogue behavior,” although the agency was considered “Ohio’s best protection against a federal lawsuit regarding prison conditions” according to Public Defender Tim Young. Young further noted that the state’s “prison population continues to grow, with an estimated all-time high coming this summer. It is vital to the safety of prison employees and inmates that the institutions are inspected regularly, and potential problems identified and addressed as early as possible.”

After much contentious discussion, GOP leaders agreed to retain the CIIC on the condition that Saul resign – though the scope of the agency’s oversight is still in limbo.

Ohio’s prison system has a population of around 50,000 prisoners and an annual budget of $1.5 billion. “We need that kind of independent watchdog who is going to be able to withstand political pressure,” said state Rep. Debbie Phillips. “Any director in the future is going to be looking over their shoulder to make sure they are still going to have a job when what they need to be doing is concentrating on doing their job.”


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