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“Free” Prisoner-Made Furniture Gets Ohio Prison Industry Officials in Hot Water

by Chad Marks

After an anonymous complaint was submitted to the Ohio Inspector General (OIG) in June 2017, the agency opened an investigation into misconduct by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and Ohio Penal Industries (OPI).

The complainant told the Inspector General’s office that OPI workers were using their positions for personal gain and may have had been involved in equipment that went missing following the closure of prison work farms. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.16].

In less than a month, OIG investigators met with OPI chief Sherri Duffey, Assistant Chief Todd Cordial and Manager Dan Kinsel. Duffey, Cordial and Kinsel were told they were being placed on administrative leave shortly after that meeting. Kinsel wasted no time in filing for retirement. Duffey and Cordial stuck around until the investigation was complete; once it was over, they were fired in February and March 2018. OPI’s chief fiscal officer, Todd Thobe, was demoted before deciding to retire, while Randy O’Brien, who worked at the OPI’s auto service center, was terminated. Another auto service center employee, Darren Arnett, resigned.

An 82-page report issued by the OIG on December 20, 2018 revealed that Ohio state Rep. Larry Householder had received some expensive furniture from OPI, consisting of an engraved table-and-chair set worth $9,313. Kinsel had used his position to force Ohio prison workers to create the table and chairs for the lawmaker.

The chair frames were made by prisoners at the Warren Correctional Institution. Prisoners at the Ohio Reformatory for Women did the embroidery work, while the upholstery was completed by other workers at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.

When Rep. Householder was questioned about the custom-made OPI furniture, he told investigators he thought the agency was giving it to him as a present. However, invoices sent to his office for months, updating him on the progress of the furniture, indicated that his “free present” story was just that – a story. 

At one point the legislator said, “I agreed to display the table in the Riffe [State Office Tower], as a way to promote the good work that the inmates at OPI do.” He added, “When we learned that OPI had acted improperly, my office asked that the OPI pick up the table immediately, which they did.” Had the OIG not investigated, though, its unlikely that Rep. Householder would have ever paid for the prisoner-crafted furniture.

It was clear that Kinsel had intended to give the table-and-chair set to Householder in order to curry favor with the lawmaker. In January 2017, in an email to an OPI sales manager concerning the furniture, he wrote, “Please move forward.... We need the support of the Ohio House of Representatives on OPI’s side if you know what I mean!!” He also reportedly stated, when asked if the furniture would be given to Householder at no cost, “Don’t worry about it, it’s just a showroom item, and that’s the way we’re going to handle it.”

The exploitation of prisoner labor was not the only issue cited in the OIG report. Inspector General Randall J. Meyer said he found 26 incidents of wrongdoing. For example, prisoners were used to perform free repairs on the personal vehicles of staff members; they were also tasked with building a “smoke shack” on the back of an OPI building where Duffey used to take smoke breaks with other staff members. The shack had Adirondack chairs for employees to sit in that were built by prisoners at the Mansfield Correctional Institution.

Further, the OIG reported that $8.9 million was spent on renovations of two OPI dairy facilities that were never used because the prison farm operations were shut down, and prisoner labor was used to install a tanning bed and soda machine at OPI Assistant Chief Cordial’s home and workplace.

A spokeswoman for the ODRC, Jo Ellen Smith, promised the department would review the report to decide what further reforms were needed. “Aggressive actions have already been taken to improve overall operations, including leadership and personnel changes within the Ohio Penal Industries and significant changes in policy and procedures,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the incidents of misconduct described in the OIG report have been referred to the Ohio Ethics Commission, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.

“In conjunction with the Franklin County prosecutor’s office, we will pursue prosecution for any and all wrongdoing uncovered by this investigation,” a spokesperson for Klein’s office stated. 



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