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Despite Past Problems, Prison Privatization in Ohio May Expand

by Lonnie Burton

Ohio Governor John Kasich believes in privatization of some government functions as both a way to save the state money and improve the services that residents receive. So in 2011 he submitted a budget plan asking the legislature for authorization to sell as many as five state prisons to for-profit companies. But following the first sale, a series of embarrassing reports revealed numerous problems under private management.

The first – and thus far only – prison to be sold, the 1,798-bed Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, was transferred to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now known as CoreCivic) in 2012. CCA paid the state almost $73 million for the facility, and in exchange received a 20-year contract to house Ohio state prisoners along with a 90% bed guarantee provision. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.42].

According to Neil Larusch, a Conneaut City Councilman who toured Lake Erie shortly after it was sold, the prison’s population quickly grew by 300 prisoners, requiring double bunking. He also noted that CCA hired the bare minimum of guards, resulting in a toxic mix of violence, drugs and squalid living conditions. Some prisoners, for example, were left without running water, requiring them to defecate in plastic bags.

“When prisoners become dollar signs ... they don’t have good conditions, they don’t invest in rehabilitation, they don’t invest in staff,” noted Larusch. “Those prisons degenerate and become big public safety concerns.”

State inspection reports initially found a variety of problems at Lake Erie related to “safety, security and inmate discipline,” though later reports cited improvements. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.44].

It also isn’t clear that Ohio’s privatization efforts have achieved promised cost savings. The state pays CCA about $45 per day for each prisoner at Lake Erie – well above the $37 per day to house each prisoner at the much larger Noble Correctional Institution, also a medium-security facility. In a statement released in early 2016, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said CCA is required to reduce incarceration costs by 5% annually, but also said it couldn’t confirm if such savings had actually been achieved.

CCA previously operated a federal prison in Youngstown, Ohio – the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center – that was also plagued with problems. In CCA’s first years managing that facility in the 1990s it had over a dozen stabbings, several murders and a major escape. The City of Youngstown even filed suit to force CCA to comply with basic safety standards, and a lawsuit brought by prisoners settled in March 1999 for almost $2.5 million, including attorneys’ fees. [See: PLN, Aug. 1999, p.14; Nov. 1998, p.6; June 1998, p.14]. The federal government eventually canceled its contract to house prisoners at the facility in 2014. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.42].

Despite CCA’s dismal history in Ohio, Governor Kasich and state lawmakers signed off on  legislation (HB 153) that authorized the sale of the Lake Erie prison to CCA in 2012. Kasich was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers in the early 2000s when that company helped to bail CCA out of major financial troubles, and CCA’s main lobbyist in Ohio, Don Thibaut, served as Kasich’s chief of staff during his tenure in Congress. Additionally, in January 2011, Kasich appointed Gary C. Mohr, a former managing director and consultant for CCA, to head Ohio’s prison system.

The law permitting the sale of Lake Erie survived a legal challenge when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on February 11, 2016 that the statute did not violate the single-subject rule of the state constitution nor the prohibition against state financial involvement with private enterprise. The rule against bills with more than a single subject was not violated, the Court said, because in a budget bill it is the budget that is the subject of the legislation, not the various recipients of state funds. See: State ex rel. Ohio Civil Services Employees Association v. Ohio, 146 Ohio St.3d 315, 56 N.E.3d 913 (Ohio 2016). PLN previously reported the state Court of Appeals’ decision in the case. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.57].

In spite of the problems that have arisen with privately-operated prisons in Ohio in the past, in June 2015 state officials approved a bill (HB 238) that allows another state facility, the North Central Correctional Institution, currently operated by Management and Training Corp., to be sold. While that sale has not yet occurred, some insist it is the wrong way to go.

“Whenever you bring a business in, the business is always going to look at the bottom line,” said state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan. “You shouldn’t profit from other human beings, and I really think this should be in the state government.”

“We have to take a stand against the private prison industry,” agreed Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. “We have to get people out of prisons and start reinvesting in things that work.”

Rep. Lepore-Hagen criticized the CCA-run Lake Erie facility for failing to invest in rehabilitative programs and trained staff. But with its bottom line tied to the number of prisoners it holds, a company like CCA may be incentivized not to invest in rehabilitation because it could actually profit from higher recidivism rates.

According to an April 2016 news report, CCA has started a “re-entry center” at the Lake Erie facility where prisoners are taught life, financial and employment-related skills. Recidivism rates are not tracked by individual prison in Ohio, however, so there is no way to determine whether the program is successful or not. 

Sources: “Prisons for Profit: Under Kasich, Ohio Becomes Laboratory for Privatizing Public Jails,” Otterbein University Television (Feb. 2016);;;;;