Ohio prison staffs feeling strained

As budgets tighten, state is looking for ways to reduce the inmate population

LEBANON — Lebanon Correctional Institution was built to hold 1,440 inmates. It currently holds 2,600 — and 40 of 354 corrections officer jobs are vacant.

“Something needs to give,” said Marc Spencer, a corrections officer and president of his union. “The state needs to find a way to accommodate the inmates and the staffing.”

Lebanon Correctional officer Marc Spencer would like to see Washington stimulus money go to the Ohio prison system to hire more guards. Staff photo by Jim NoelkerWith Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland pledging last week to reduce the prison population, and contemplating closing a prison to meet budgetary needs, observers across the criminal justice system are watching closely and warily.

Some of Strickland’s reforms, proposed as part of his budget last week, include raising the dollar amount for felony theft charges and giving inmates seven days a month credit for participating in education and treatment programs. Currently, they receive one day credit per month.

Other proposals would increase funding to place those convicted of lower felonies into diversion programs or community-based sanctions, such as work release or electronic monitoring.

Different players disagree on exactly what must be done, but with the state economy in apparent free-fall and budgets tightening, everyone agrees something must be done.

For the officers at Lebanon, the status quo means lots of overtime — too much, according to Spencer. Often, guards are told 15 minutes before their shifts end that they’re needed for another full shift, starting immediately. The result is guards that are less alert.

“Sixteen hours inside a prison is a long day,” Spencer said. “It’s rough on your body.”

The last week of January, Lebanon officers logged nearly 400 hours of overtime, or the equivalent of 50 shifts, Spencer said.

Those problems are statewide. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has 32 institutions with a capacity of 38,320 beds. The department holds about 50,000 prisoners, meaning the system is at 132 percent.

Tim Roberts, vice president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association’s Corrections Assembly, said that the union is not against reducing prison population, but does not want to see a prison closed. The union is also concerned that population reductions could lead to more staffing decreases.

This month, the number of corrections officers statewide dropped just below 7,000 for the first time since staffing was increased in the wake of the 1993 Lucasville riot, Roberts said. More than 1,000 positions have been eliminated since 2000.

Michael P. Randle, assistant director of the corrections department, said that the department is doing the best it can, given budgetary constraints. Much of what Strickland proposed came from department recommendations, including diverting low-level felons.

“We believe that expensive prison beds should be reserved for predatory violent offenders,” Randle said. “We can’t put a ‘no-vacancy’ sign up.”

About 57 percent of the inmates who enter the system each year have sentences of less than one year. With credit for time served in jails while awaiting trial, many serve only a few months, meaning programming options are limited, Randle said.

It would be better to deal with those offenders locally, Randle said.

But Bob Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, said his members are concerned about unfunded mandates. An offender placed on probation repeatedly after multiple arrests costs counties money, including time in jails.

“We don’t want the counties picking up the bill for the state,” Cornwell said.

Strickland’s proposals are viewed favorably at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a Cincinnati-based public-interest law firm, where attorney Janet Moore called increased programing “smart on crime.”

Currently, the nation imprisons one out of every 99 people and one out of every 15 blacks, numbers that would drop with more programming, especially drug rehabilitation, Moore said.

“That’s simply not sustainable,” Moore said. “You are dooming yourself to a cycle of recidivism.”

Roberts said the union believes programming inside the prisons is important as well, since it gives inmates something to do besides start trouble and swap tips about their illegal trades. Given the chance to change, some will embrace it.

“Rehabilitation is up to them,” Roberts said. “We can give them the tools. If they come in and want to change their lives, they can do it.”

source: http://www.daytondailynews.com/localnews/content/oh/story/news/local/2009/02/08/ddn020809prison.html?cxtype=rss&cxsvc=7&cxcat=16

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