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Inmate to prison guard ratio in Ohio prison system could prove deadly

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It wasn’t even a year ago when Ohioans remembered the 20th anniversary of the prison riot at the state maximum security prison in Lucasville that led to the death of nine inmates and one prison guard. Yet the troubling statistics that were noted by Ohio media outlets last year have not led to the changes necessary to prevent another crisis like the one experienced twenty years ago. In fact, the problem of overpopulation and understaffed facilities has grown exponentially over the last few years.

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A report issued after the riots in 1993 listed two main factors as the impetus to the inmate takeover. Those factors were overpopulation and understaffing. Today, Ohio prisons across the state are dangerously close to the inmate-guard ratio that overwhelmed the prison staff that fateful day in April nearly 21 years ago.

At the time of the ’93 riots, the prisoner to guard ratio was 8 to 1. As of last year that rate has grown to 7.2 to 1. That’s after a record low of 5.2 to 1 was reached in 2001. The union for prison workers demanded a 4 to 1 ration following the riot. But budget cuts that have led to layoffs to prison staff have reversed nearly all of the positive changes that were made after the Lucasville riot to prevent another inmate takeover. "After the riot, the Ohio General Assembly pumped $231.3 million into the prison system during the next two-year budget, giving money for 904 additional corrections officers and building another high-security prison in Youngstown, which became the Ohio State Penitentiary." (Marion Star)

So if the State knows that having too many prisoners per guard leads to dangerous situations for prison workers, why has the number gone up? Well, one reason is budget cuts that have resulted in layoffs for corrections officers. According to OCSEA president Christopher Mabe , “The state has not only lost every officer gained after Lucasville, we've lost nearly double that many, without a corresponding reduction in the inmate population.”

At a time that Ohio prisons have seen these reductions in corrections officers, the number of inmates has more than doubled since the 1990’s. In fact, the overcrowding as it continues is set to reach a breaking point of 51,601 this summer. As it stands, the correctional officers union “has about 6,400 guards for about 50,300 inmates, compared to more than 7,000 guards for 51,000 inmates five years ago.” The Ohio prison system is only designed to hold 38,579 inmates.

Obviously, these prisons are bursting at the seams, while smaller counties are sending more and more of their inmates to state prisons. It would only make sense then that the state would move to make cuts elsewhere and hire more corrections officers as the prison population continues to rise. But that’s not what the Kasich administration has done.

Considering all of the evidence, it appears that the penchant to fire state workers is a symptom of an ideology held by the governor that state workers’ salaries are at least part of the cause of budget deficits that he claims to be closing, but at these costs, it seems irresponsible and more to the point, dangerous to continue to fix the state budget at the expense of necessary personnel.

As noted in a previous article, while all prison workers, including unionized prison workers, have been under a pay freeze since 2009, unionized employees are still eligible for step increases and longevity increases. While those increases have been reduced through negotiations between the state and the union, they nonetheless allow those prison workers who belong to the union to receive some pay increases.

Contracts with clauses such as these can be broken if the state hands over management responsibilities to private entities, as was done with the Lake Eerie Correctional Institution. Once those contracts are broken, new officers can be hired at a lower pay rate, with fewer benefits and no promise of cost of living increases or any other increases. That may save the private corporation money on their bottom line, but it is proving costly to the state.

Not only does it seem that the private prison experiment in Ohio has not saved the State money, it has proven to not be able to handle disturbances without the aid of other state personnel, like local police and the Ohio Highway Patrol. On top of having trouble keeping their facilities fully staffed, private prisons have higher turnover than state run facilities, which costs the facilities in non-monetary ways.

For instance, state workers tend to stay in their jobs longer in order to keep and increase their benefits. Consider that union workers at Ohio prisons get paid more for the number of years that they stay on the job. When there is no incentive for longevity on top of pay freezes, pay cuts and layoffs, officers are more likely to leave their jobs sooner and more frequently which costs those prisons the institutional learning and experience that long term corrections officers bring to the job.

As Christopher Mabe, president of the OCSEA puts it, "A lot of the private sector employees have lesser wages, lesser benefits. Those are the ways that private prison companies make money," Mabe said. "They don't make cars. They don't manufacture things. They save money off the backs of people. That's where this inherent savings comes from."

It is an ideology held by Ohio Governor Kasich as well as many of the workers that are and will pay the price for these cuts. It’s an ideology that says that unions are bad and government is bad and that free markets and corporations do things better than government can. It’s proven they make money better than government, but turning a profit is not the goal of most government functions. The function of government is to provide for the people using the people’s tax dollars. The result of privatization has only meant that those tax dollars paid by the people end up in private corporate hands without providing the services to the people for which they were paid.

Beyond understaffing and overcrowding of prisons, another alarming sign that Ohio prisons are dangerously close to pre-1993 levels is the recent increase in gang activity. “Gang membership has risen to one in six inmates and remains highest at the state’s maximum security prisons — 55.6 percent at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown and 46.6 percent at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, according to a recent Correctional Institution Inspection Committee report.” This is partly attributed to the transfer of disruptive prisoners such as gang members to more secure facilities like Youngstown and Lucasville.

The warnings aren’t being missed by those who follow the money as it relates to the Ohio prison system. It’s not just the union leaders who are concerned about the trends going in the wrong direction, prison workers and activists fear that these trends if they continue point to a repeat of the 1993 riots.

Paul Goldberg is the former executive director of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. He wrote the report detailing the changes necessary to prevent another riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shortly after the Lucasville riot and agrees that the numbers are inching dangerously close to those levels, “It looks like a lot of the red flags in the early 1990s are flashing again in Ohio.”

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