by Matt Clarke
An administrative staffing shortage at the Ohio legislature’s bi-chamber, eight-member Correctional Institution Inspection Committee has left unpaid interns responsible for inspecting 27 adult prisons and three juvenile facilities.
Five years ago, the Committee had six full-time employees – a director and five inspectors with backgrounds in criminal justice. Now it has just one staff member.
State lawmakers formed the committee in 1977 as a forward-looking way to generate unbiased reports on the status of Ohio’s prisons.
“It’s an incredibly important function to monitor the state’s prison system,” said former state Representative Greta Johnson, who served on the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee from January 2015 through March 2017. “While there are incredible interns working at the statehouse, the inspection of prisons should be done by legislators and paid staff.”
The Committee had a well-deserved reputation for understanding the prison system. For example, in 1991 it issued a report highlighting serious problems at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. Two years later, when the facility erupted in a deadly riot that resulted in the deaths of nine prisoners and a guard, problems cited in the Committee’s report, such as overcrowding and understaffing, were identified as the main factors contributing to the riot. [See: PLN, June 1993, p.9].
“The purpose of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, as defined by Ohio law, includes maintaining a continuing program of inspection of each state correctional institution and improving the condition and operation of the state’s prisons,” said attorneys Alice and Staughton Lynd, who have been advocates for Ohio prisoners for over two decades. “To have inexperienced interns investigating and evaluating what is going on in Ohio prisons is not what the statute requires.”
The Committee’s staff usually includes two or three unpaid interns who typically are in their early 20s, pursuing college degrees and have an interest in corrections. Their tenure is generally only a few months long.
The decline of the Committee began in May 2016 with the resignation of then-director Joanna Saul under pressure from Republican legislators who were upset about her efforts to obtain prisoners’ medical and mental health information. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.27]. She also had been troubled by the reduction in Committee staff and had emailed Ohio lawmakers that the 50,000 prisoners in the nation’s sixth-largest prison system with a $1.8 billion annual budget deserved “someone – even a staff of just six people – to actually go into prisons, inquire into issues such as use of force, medical care, mental health, the grievance procedure, food services, etc. and objectively report on them.”
State senate aide John Fortney said lawmakers thought Saul had exceeded the scope of the Committee’s mandate by inquiring into those issues. They responded by reducing staff, limiting prison inspections and nearly stopping the Committee’s meetings. They dropped their opposition after Saul agreed to resign following a six-year tenure. But the Committee ceased meeting altogether after its chairman, state Senator Cliff Hite, resigned in October 2017 amid accusations that he had pressured a staff member for sex.
The Committee began convening again in November 2018 under a new chairman, Rep. Doug Green, who also doesn’t like having interns conduct prison inspections. The Committee spends only a fraction of its $447,000 budget, most of which is for the $51,130 annual salary paid to its only remaining staff member, senior research analyst Charlotte Adams.
Sources: cleveland.com, news-herald.com, Associated Press
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