Shakeup in Lockdown

As Ohio prisons go private, a prison town goes berserk

Robert Shaw has been around the world, but he's never found a friendlier place than Grafton. The sixtyish foundry worker is spouting his rural Lorain County gospel from his perch at the Deluxe Bar on Main Street. "It's kind of like Petticoat Junction, except we don't have a water tower," says the bearded, salt-and-pepper-haired chain smoker, a reference to the 1960s sitcom about life in the mythical town of Hooterville.

Shaw and others are fuming over what's happening to their hometown — and the fact they have no power to stop it.

Hooterville, they believe, is getting sucker-punched. In early April, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction put five Ohio prisons up for sale, including two of the three found in Grafton. Governor John Kasich hopes the sale will raise $200 million to help soothe the state's multi-billion-dollar deficit. The buyer of those prisons is also expected to run them, and the ODRC expects results: savings of at least 5 percent compared to the costs of state-run institutions.

Quick cash. Long-term savings. The job of managing prisoners gets done. What's not to like? Plenty, according to many residents, prison employees, village officials, and elected leaders in Grafton.

"Everybody's mad,'' says Ethan Danico, who has lived down the street from Grafton Correctional Institution for 20 years. He works at a local plastics molding company and hangs out at the Trading Post, a crossroads tavern just a mile or so away from the prison.

"Right now the prisons are fine," he says. Besides, Grafton has housed the prison industry for decades without the slightest of problems. Why change a good thing? Why wrestle good-paying jobs away from locals?

"I work too hard — 60 hours a week and pay my taxes," says Danico, "to make some politicians and their friends rich."

Yes, privatization has hit a nerve in Ohio.

Contracting of public services and selling public assets tends to force a divide along ideological lines: those who believe government should shed as many functions as it can and those who believe it should maintain its role in managing public safety and assets. But the issue is more than ideological; when the sales dust settles in Grafton, there will be real-world winners and losers in the village of 2,600.

Obvious gains could await the local school district, with somewhat cloudier losses for prison employees and residents. Locals fear everything from dried-up tax revenue to unemployment to breakdowns in safety — and they cite previous stabs at privatization as evidence. As the state rolls on in its quest to fix the budget, it just might break Grafton.