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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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.


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