On March 10, a building in the Lake Erie Correctional Institution was flooded with toxic fumes after a fresh-air supply-fan broke, causing most inmates in the building to complain of headaches and nausea.
After hearing the complaints from approximately 75 percent of inmates in the building, the prison's staff evacuated the building and fixed the fan, but not before several inmates had to be taken out to the prison's medical wing on stretchers and treated for their illnesses.
Within days, Scene heard of the incident from two prisoners who were inside at the time. They called it evidence of staff incompetence. One even claimed, "Definitely probably gonna hit the news."
But the incident, much like the many other reports gathered by Scene from state officials and the two prisoners, did not hit the news.
In the past few months, Scene has obtained letters and emails from two prisoners and their families confirming fights, lockdowns and unsanitary conditions at the prison in Northeast Ohio, which became the first state prison to be sold to a private company when Governor John Kasich's administration sold the prison to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 2011.
"CCA does not know how to run a state prison," a prisoner wrote to Scene. "Not only have I been told this by a few correctional officers, I have also noticed it myself. Just this week, I have been told by a number of the (special response team members) who came in to help in shaking this place down for contraband."
While concerns over the private prison and for-profit model have been raised since the deal two years ago, audits and inspections from the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), Ohio's independent prison watchdog, and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) have detailed poor conditions and a rise in criminal and violent activity at the CCA-owned facility.
Today, critics like the ACLU of Ohio have seized on the reports as moments of vindication. In September, Mike Brickner, research director at the ACLU, told Scene that it was only a matter of time before conditions worsened and the state was forced to retract its commitment to privatizing public prisons.
"Unfortunately, what we have to wait for for the tide to turn is another round of safety issues at these facilities," Brickner said back then.
Based on the prisoners' accounts and independent reports, that tide may be turning now. But CCA has vigorously defended its commitment to LECI. In an email, CCA spokesperson Steve Owen highlighted positive findings in recent reports, including a reduction in gang activity, while glossing over the problems.
"We will continue to work with the ODRC and CIIC to meet any inspection-related goals that are slated for completion, and we remain committed to providing the best service possible for our government partners and the taxpayers they serve," Owen wrote.
Critics like Brickner are not buying it. As the bad news continues to trickle out of LECI, they're demanding the state government clean up the mess before the situation gets even more out of hand.
"Eventually, it is going to hit this tipping point, where something really, truly awful is going to happen, and then people will rush to try fix things," Brickner says. "But it will be too late at that point."
In February, Scene began receiving unsolicited letters and emails from an LECI prisoner and his fiancée, detailing what they labeled as "riots" and general chaos at the minimum- and medium-security prison.
"In my opinion, a lot of inmates' and correctional officers' too, the CCA needs to either learn to control a prison real, real fast or sell it back to the state, so the safety of the inmates isn't being put at risk anymore," the prisoner wrote. "This place is severely dangerous."
The prisoner and his fiancée spoke to Scene on the condition of anonymity.
Shortly after receiving the letters and emails, multiple official sources confirmed the reports of violence at LECI. On Feb. 22, the CIIC released a report detailing findings from a surprise inspection on Jan. 22, confirming a sharp rise in violence at the prison. Official incident reports later acquired from ODRC confirmed the specific fights to which the prisoner referred. ODRC specifically referred to the incidents as "fights," not "riots," as the prisoner called them.
The prisoner pinned the rise in violence on inadequate staff. He also suggested the prison might be trying to save money by keeping staff low.
"This place is overpopulated so they can collect more money, as well as understaffed," the prisoner wrote. "How can two correctional officers who sit at a desk outside of our dorms on the other side of locked gates control 400 inmates?"
He added, "Not only that, the Correctional Officers that do work here are either A: still college kids or B: overweight and out of shape. I do not feel safe with any of them if it comes down to needing them for help."
The prisoner's letter went on to detail two Jan. 25 fights, which he again labeled "riots," and an ensuing lockdown. The prisoner complained that inmates weren't being told what LECI staff planned to do to prevent future incidents.
In one of the two incidents, corrections officers broke up a fight between approximately 10 to 15 inmates with the use of pepper spray. Following the fight, an officer attempted to escort one of the inmates involved back to segregation, and the situation quickly escalated as other inmates perceived the officer's actions as too physical.
In his letter, the prisoner said the corrections officer "was being way, way too rough" with the inmate, which caused the violence to escalate as other inmates "reacted on impulse."
The official Jan. 27 incident report, acquired from ODRC in April, claimed the inmate was being loud and incited the other inmates into action. The other inmates reacted by rushing toward a side gate and beating on a dayroom window, according to the report. "Inmate (redacted) picked up a locked box and threw it through a dayroom window breaking the glass," the report read.
The officers responded by shooting approximately 15 rounds of pepper spray capsules from a pepper ball gun, causing the inmates to disperse and return to their bed areas.
In the other Jan. 25 incident reported by the prisoner, six to eight inmates were observed "throwing chairs at each other and striking each other with closed fists," according to the official Jan. 27 incident report. In the middle of the fight, "one inmate was observed striking another with a mop handle," the report read.
Officers first reacted with verbal orders to stop, which the inmates ignored, according to the report. After multiple verbal orders were ignored, the officers used pepper spray and the inmates dispersed.
During both incidents, the prisoner claimed the corrections officers were slow to react because they didn't have enough security to stop such large, disruptive brawls.
Commenting on the first incident, the prisoner wrote, "With the correctional officers who just close the gate and let it happen because A: they can, I've seen it multiple times, B: not enough security to stop it, what do they expect?"
The incidents led to a lockdown that lasted multiple weeks, from late January to mid-February. In his letter, the prisoner claimed the punishment was unfair: "We're locked down and being punished for what we didn't do."
He added, "In our dorm we've had no problems, no fights, no issues so we can get back to being able to call our loved ones, get our paperwork we need done from our case manager, go outside for rec (and) chow real meals again, but that's not enough, we're still being punished when it was not even our fault."
A couple months later, the prisoner's fiancée contacted Scene claiming the prisoner told her there was another round of fights on April 7. Following the fights, the CCA facility was placed on "modified movement," which is less restrictive than a lockdown.
The official April 8 incident report for the fight, which involved one inmate attacking another with a weapon, pinned the cause on race-based tensions: "The information from the interviews points to tension in the unit between Hispanic inmates and black inmates at this time."
In response, CCA moved several Hispanic inmates to another section of the prison, and other restrictions were invoked: "(I)nmates remain restricted in their bunk areas. They are being permitted five inmates out at a time to use the microwave and to get ice. This will stay in place until we reassess the inmate climate."
Shortly after Scene received the first letters from the prisoner, the CIIC released a report that confirmed much of what the prisoner had to say about a rise in violence and inadequate staffing at the CCA facility.
In January, the CIIC inspected LECI and looked at the prison's data for 2010, 2011 and 2012, which includes some data from before CCA took over the facility in September 2011.
The report found inmate-on-inmate violence had increased by 188 percent between 2010 and 2012, leading to a much higher rate of inmate-on-inmate violence than comparative prisons and right below the ODRC average for all state prisons, which includes Ohio's maximum-security prisons. Meanwhile, inmate-on-staff violence increased by more than 300 percent in the same time span, leading to much higher rates than both comparative prisons and the ODRC average.
Fight convictions were also up 40 percent since 2010, but the findings weren't higher than comparative prisons or the ODRC average.
The report also found "a high presence of gang activity and illegal substance use." Access to illegal substances even led to a death at the CCA facility: "During the previous six months of drug screens, 6.7 percent of the inmates tested positive, which is higher than the DRC average. In the most recent monthly drug test, 13 percent were positive. An inmate recently died from a suspected overdose of illegal substances (heroin)."
Other categories were similarly found in need of improvement: fair treatment, fiscal accountability and rehabilitation and re-entry.
The CIIC report concluded that "personal safety is at risk" in the CCA facility. The report found the prison's staff were making matters worse with improper use of force and sanctions: "Incident reports indicate that staff hesitate to use force even when appropriate and at times fail to deploy chemical agents prior to physical force, risking greater injury to both inmates and staff. Staff also do not appropriately sanction inmates for serious misconduct. At the time of the inspection, the facility had no options for sanctions other than the segregation unit, which was full."
But the report didn't pin all the blame on staff, which CIIC said was poorly trained, overworked and lacked experience.
"The above issues are compounded by high staff turnover and low morale," the report read. "New staff generally do not have the experience or training to be able to make quick judgments regarding the appropriate application of force or how to handle inmate confrontations. Staff also reported that they are often required to work an extra 12 hours per week, which may impact their response."
The report left dozens of recommendations for the CCA facility, including a thorough review of staff policy and guidelines, stronger cooperation between staff, holding staff and inmates more accountable and the completion of required state audits and evaluations.
For some, prisoners clubbing each other with mop handles and other criminal activity may appear as typical signs of dangerous prison life, but Brickner and the ACLU insist prisons are not supposed to be held to such a low standard.
"I will not say that prisons are some sort of paradise or utopia — every prison has problems, whether they're publicly owned or privately owned — but the things that we're seeing at the Lake Erie facility indicate that there are major systemic problems happening at that prison," Brickner says. "It isn't common for somebody to die of a drug overdose. It isn't common for gang fights to break out regularly."
He adds, "It's clear that something very wrong is happening right now at the Lake Erie facility."
The rise in criminal activity is also affecting the nearby town of Conneaut, Ohio. In January, Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch complained about a rise in smuggling activity around the prison, claiming it was causing the town to spend more money on police enforcement than it could afford. He sent a letter to state officials asking the Ohio State Highway Patrol to help stop the smuggling activity.
Col. John Born, superintendent of the State Highway Patrol, responded to LaRusch's letter acknowledging that drug smuggling had gone up between 2011 and 2012, but his letter claimed recorded drug crimes had gone down in the CCA facility.
Whether that's because of looser enforcement or an actual drop in crime remains unclear, considering the CIIC report singled out illegal substance use as a key point of concern.
Indeed, 911 calls directing local police to the prison, whether it's someone witnessing smuggling activity or just suspicious behavior, have gone up in the past year — suggesting that there has been more criminal activity around the prison. In 2012, there were 229 calls for LECI. Between 2007 and 2011, there were only 64 total.
But that may not matter much because, as Born explains in his letter, the State Highway Patrol does not have the authority to increase enforcement: "It is important to point out the Ohio State Highway Patrol's legal authority and corresponding duties prior to the sale of the prison and after the sale remain largely unchanged. Ohio troopers did not have original jurisdiction on private property off institution grounds while under state operations nor do they today."
The rise in crime and violence provides a real life example of what private prison critics warned of prior to LECI's sale. A 2011 report from the ACLU of Ohio cited two studies that found higher rates of violence at private prisons: A study from George Washington University found private prisons have 50 percent higher inmate-on-staff assault and 66 percent higher inmate-on-inmate assault than publicly owned and managed prisons. Another study from the Federal Probation Journal in 2004 found private prisons have a 50 percent higher rate of inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate assault.
"This confirms everything that we know about private prisons," says Brickner, who co-authored the ACLU report. "They just come with a lot of these problems. Because of the profit motive, they tend to skip on medical care, training and all sorts of things, and that leads to the types of problems that we've seen at the Lake Erie facility."
He adds, "Where I was surprised is, I really thought that CCA was so fixated on making sure that this would work that they wouldn't allow the facility to go as downhill as it has so quickly."
For the two prisoners Scene corresponded with, the incident involving toxic fumes represented broader problems at the prison regarding health and sanitation — problems first picked up by an ODRC audit.
"Last night some crazy shit happened," the second prisoner wrote. "A lot of people in our building started getting sick, so they evacuated to the rec hall. Couple people were stretched over to medical and whatnot. They say it was carbon monoxide I think. They really didn't tell us. They didn't even call the fire department."
For the prisoner's mother, the toxic fume incident was representative of larger problems at the CCA facility that caused her to worry about her about her son's life and safety. Throughout an extensive email exchange with Scene, the prisoner's mother discussed trying to get her son transferred to another prison, struggling to reach her son's case manager and general frustrations with trying to get answers about her son's safety and the ongoing situation at the private prison.
Some of those concerns were initially justified by an ODRC audit. In September, ODRC conducted an audit of the CCA facility, finding that the private prison only met two-thirds of Ohio's prison standards. In total, there were 47 violations at the prison, with problems ranging from inadequate staff training to poor food quality.
"It was apparent throughout certain departments that DRC policy and procedure is not being followed," the audit read. "Staff was interviewed and some stated they are not sure what to do because of the confusion between CCA policy and DRC policy. Some staff expressed safety concerns due to low staffing numbers and not having enough coverage. Other staff stated that there is increased confusion due to all the staffing transitions."
In September emails acquired by Scene, an ODRC monitor detailed unsanitary conditions to Barry Goodrich, warden of LECI at the time, following a walkthrough at the CCA facility.
"On September 4, 2012 DRC Contract Monitor conducted a walk through Segregation at (LECI) and found unacceptable living conditions of inmates being housed inside recreation areas, with no immediate access to running water for hydration, showers and the use of a toilet," the monitor wrote. "There was evidence of urine in plastic containers inside the recreation area and inmates using plastic bags for defecation. This must cease immediately!"
A follow-up ODRC audit in November found notable progress at the CCA facility in most categories, with prison staff conveying "confidence" instead of "frantic/panic," according to the November report.
How much of the November audit remains true is uncertain, considering the CIIC report detailed scathing findings in January.
In the face of so much scrutiny, CCA has not backed down from its investment at LECI.
"We are proud of the quality corrections and rehabilitation services we provide at (LECI)," CCA spokesperson Owen wrote in an email to Scene. "We will continue to be a good neighbor and corporate citizen in Conneaut, all while providing great value for the taxpayers of Ohio."
Owen also said the prison is taking some measures to improve security: "Since assuming ownership and management of the facility, CCA has made significant security upgrades to (LECI) at the company's expense. These enhancements, which are ongoing, include adding and upgrading security cameras throughout the facility and adding or upgrading security fencing."
But Owen did not directly address specific concerns raised by the CIIC report or incidents detailed by the prisoners, instead pointing Scene to the incident reports for more information on the fights.
Owen wrote the CCA facility is undergoing a "thorough plan of action," which was approved by ODRC officials. But when asked whether CCA is planning on hiring more security officers and changing how they're trained, Owen wrote, "(S)taffing levels are determined by ODRC requirements and existing contract terms." No further explanation was given.
Instead, Owen points to a January audit from the American Correctional Association (ACA), which earned the prison a 99.06 percent score. That audit looked at hundreds of standards, including incidents, rehabilitation programs and access to education. But the report came before the CIIC report's release, so it's unclear how many of its findings stand today.
Brickner says ACA accreditation "doesn't mean much." Getting an audit requires CCA to pay ACA, posing what Brickner calls a potential conflict of interest. CCA is also told when ACA officials are going to inspect the prison, giving prison officials enough time to make everything look great for the audit, according to Brickner.
Meanwhile, the CIIC holds surprise inspections, and there's no motive to decide one way or the other because there's no money coming from CCA to support the inspection, according to Brickner.
"It almost borders on the ridiculous," says Brickner, citing the three-week timespan between the wildly contradicting reports from the CIIC and ACA.
At the very least, CCA seems to acknowledge some changes are necessary. In March, CCA moved Goodrich, the former warden of LECI, to the Bent County Correctional Facility, a medium-security facility in Colorado that CCA has owned since 1996. Brigham Sloan, the warden from the Colorado facility, was moved to LECI to replace Goodrich.
Given the management change and new plan of action, it's clear something is changing at LECI — although the details are still murky on how much and what CCA plans to do.
So far, the state government has not shown any signs of taking back the private prison, but state officials have pulled back on previous commitments to privatize state prisons.
On the same day the original ODRC audit was officially delivered to ODRC Director Gary Mohr, the director announced that the state would not pursue more prison privatization and would instead focus on efforts to reduce prison re-entry.
Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols says that the governor's stance on privatizing prisons has not changed, and he called the LECI sale "the right decision." But he did point out that the governor's latest budget proposal did not pursue further privatization.
The state has taken some actions against CCA. In the past year, the state penalized CCA by docking nearly $500,000 in payments. ODRC spokesperson JoEllen Smith explained the deductions weren't directly linked to the audits but were instead a result of staff vacancies and contract violations related to "an extended vacancy in education" and "unacceptable conditions in segregation." The state also threatened further penalties if CCA didn't fix problems raised by the ODRC audits and CIIC inspection.
But Brickner says the state needs to go further. In the short term, he says the state should do more to hold CCA accountable, including making LECI susceptible to public records requests like state-owned prisons. In the long term, he says the state should consider its options for taking over LECI if conditions deteriorate further.
Ohio isn't the only state struggling with prison privatization. In 2011, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution for acting as the figurehead in a conspiracy that unjustly sentenced more than 5,000 children in a scheme now dubbed "kids for cash." Since 2003, Ciavarella took millions of dollars in bribes for maximizing children's prison sentences, which, for the private prisons in Pennsylvania, meant higher occupancy rates and, therefore, higher profits.
For critics of private prisons, the case was a clear example of the conflict of interest between private prisons and state governments. For a private prison company, it's best to maximize the amount of people in prison for higher profits. For the state, it's best to minimize the amount of people in prison to save taxpayer money and rehabilitate criminals to make them functioning members of society.
"It really typifies the problem with private prisons," Brickner says. "When you allow a profit motive to come in and to play any kind of part in the criminal justice system, that's when these types of problems begin to crop up."
Reprinted with permission from CityBeat.