Inmates describe the violence, staff ineptitude and unsanitary conditions inside the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, Ohio's only private prison

From the Inside 

Inmates describe the violence, staff ineptitude and unsanitary conditions inside the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, Ohio's only private prison

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"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."

Prison health

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. 

Private protectors

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.

Broken system

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.

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