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Ohio budget cuts and privatization endanger state prison workers

Assaults in Ohio prisons up 20.6% - photo from Springfield News Sun
Assaults in Ohio prisons up 20.6% - photo from Springfield News Sun

With the federal minimum wage finally making its way into the national debate, the wages of state workers in the Ohio prison system should also be brought to the public’s attention since the cuts to their wages endanger those workers and the public at large.

The budget cuts which were signed into law in 2011 for fiscal year 2012 resulted in layoffs for 300 corrections employees on January 1, 2012 and increased salaries for wardens at nearly all of Ohio’s prisons by 23%. The reasoning offered by the Kasich administration for the lopsided cuts was that Ohio prison wardens had not seen a wage increase since 2008.

Well, it’s 2014 and the state’s correctional officers are stuck at the pay freeze that the State of Ohio negotiated with the OCSEA (Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union representing the majority of prison employees) back in 2009. It’s been a while since they have seen an increase as well, yet there is no discussion about a wage increase for those workers before their current contract expires in 2015.

The median income for Ohio households according to the Census Bureau is $47,358; about $4,000 less than the national average. But Ohio’s correction officers’ salaries are capped at $41,350 per year, not including step increases for unionized employees who are eligible for annual increases based on advancements and longevity. However, step increases have been dramatically reduced from about $1.00 per step to about $o.35.

These pay freezes were put in place as part of the plan to close the $83 million budget shortfall created by Gov. Kasich’s cuts to the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections budget. Not unlike private sector employees, under John Kasich, government workers are finding that the executives are seeing their salaries rise, while the hard working average workers at the bottom are seeing their jobs and salaries cut in the name of saving money.

Moreover, while Gary Mohr, Director of DR&C argues that the increases to the salaries of prison wardens are justified because “Under their revised duties, wardens will be responsible for not only running the institutions, but also their individual recidivism rate,” OCSEA operations director Tim Schafer says that “The warden’s job has not evolved that much…They may have come up with new names for different things that they've been in charge of for decades.” (The Columbus Dispatch)

While it’s arguable that the wardens’ jobs have not changed much, it is indisputable that layoffs and high turnover due to privatization have definitely changed the jobs and safety of corrections officers and other prison workers.

Since John Kasich was elected Governor of Ohio in 2010, he has moved to privatize many government functions, including Ohio prisons. The results of privatization, particularly in the Ohio prison system have been controversial, expensive and dangerous to prison workers and surrounding communities. Prison administrators more concerned with turning a profit than protecting public and worker safety has resulted in alarming statistics since the move to privatize.

Originally, Kasich’s budget called for selling five of Ohio’s 26 prisons to private corporations. In the end, only one prison, the Lake Eerie Correctional Institution, was sold to CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). The deal brought more than the $50 million anticipated, CCA paying the State of Ohio $72.7 million dollars to manage the facility. But the cost to public safety and the use of public resources to fulfill the shortfalls of CCA management render the deal useless.

Last February, two special response teams were called in to quell a disturbance at the LECI at the expense of Ohio taxpayers. CCA was unable to handle the incident without the aid of the state of Ohio because its SR teams were in Mississippi dealing with a riot that broke out in one of their facilities there.

Not only were Ohio taxpayers on the hook for the cost of the state SR teams needed to quell the violence, taxpayers also paid for the transportation costs associated with moving those prisoners from LECI to Mansfield Correctional Institution, the manpower needed to open a unit that had previously been closed at Mansfield, the costs to staff the location to hold the 41 inmates involved in the LECI incident and the overtime paid required to staff the unit with state corrections officers. (Plunderbund)

Not only that, officials from the City of Conneaut, Ohio where LECI is located were not even notified of the incident until days after the disturbance was quelled. Unlike state owned and operated prisons, private prisons are not required to notify state and or federal officials of incidents at their facilities.

It’s only thanks to the OCSEA that city officials were even made aware of the event. “There is no transparency with the private prison…And this puts staff, inmates and the whole community at risk,” said Jimmy Adkins, OCSEA Corrections Assembly President in response to the LECI incident.

Consider since CCA took over LECI, violence inside of the prison according to last year’s inspection has increased dramatically:
• Inmate-on-inmate assaults increased by 187.5% from 2010 to 2012
• Inmate-on-staff assaults increased by 305.9% for the same time period
• Fights increased by more than 40% from 2011 to 2012
• Disturbances doubled in comparison to prior years
• Between 2010 and 2012 total uses of force increased by 24.1% and Use of chemical agents increased by 127.3%.
• In the prior six months, 6.7% of inmates tested positive which is higher than the DRC average
• An inmate recently died from a suspected overdose of an illegal substance (heroin) (Plunderbund)

This increase in incidents has resulted in ballooning calls to Conneaut law enforcement agencies, not to mention the influx of crime outside of the prison, in large part due to CCA’s inability to keep the facility fully staffed inside and in the areas outside the prison walls. "There's something going on within the prison that is changing the atmosphere, that's saying, 'Yeah, you can get away with it,'" La Rusch said. "If they have that little amount of control inside their own prison, how long until there's an escapee? That's what we are really concerned about."

The costs being transferred to the state because of CCA’s inability to maintain a fully staffed facility have also been passed down to the City of Conneaut. As Councilman Neil LaRusch put it, “We understand that it's a private entity now, and that it's for-profit, but nothing can come at the expense of the safety and security of our citizens,” expressing in a letter to the Governor that city finances make it impossible to employ more police officers to respond to all of the calls from LECI. The number of calls going to the Conneaut Police Department from the prison has quadrupled since CCA took over the prison.

Although the State of Ohio has assessed fines in excess of $500,000 to CCA for staffing and damages, when you begin to add up all of the costs associated with privatizing this one prison, it’s hard to imagine how badly city and state budgets would be hit if the Governor’s original plan to privatize five Ohio prisons had gone through.

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