Shakeup in Lockdown

As Ohio prisons go private, a prison town goes berserk

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Prison Capital of the World

Driving south on Avon Belden Road toward town, travelers are likely to be greeted by bunched-up herds of cows happily grazing and nuzzling each other in their pen. Nearby, Grafton Correctional began its life decades ago as an "honor" farm for minor offenders paying their debt to society.

The lush, rolling hills continue further south, where on some days men can be seen through a barbed-wire fence, playing basketball and taking walks around a track. The bucolic scene is a taste of Grafton itself: a tiny village of old and new, where biker bars, Victorian homes, run-down farms, and sprawling suburban-style developments coexist peacefully.

Village administrator Rick Kowalski calls Grafton "The Prison Capital of the World," and there seems no reason to argue the claim: More than twice as many people live inside its prison walls than in the rest of the town combined.

Grafton's three prisons sit on more than a thousand acres of land. Grafton Correctional is now a medium-security facility for a general male population. Lorain Correctional Institution processes short-term offenders, from low to maximum security, with sentences of 90 days or less. The smaller North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, already privately operated since opening in 2000, is designed primarily for felony DUI offenders.

Grafton and North Coast will be sold to the highest bidders; Lorain will remain in state hands.

Grafton was built in 1988 and Lorain Correctional in 1990, at a time when rural towns across the country began to welcome prisons as a way to boost sagging agricultural and manufacturing economies. States, overwhelmed by exploding inmate populations as a result of tougher sentencing laws, looked to build where more land was available, away from urban centers. Some began to seek private developers and operators for the new institutions, while Ohio mostly built its own. For Grafton, prisons brought good wages to an otherwise declining revenue base.

But the relationship between the state and its small prison towns is about to change. Much of that change has to do with who will work for the new owners and how much they will be paid. Private prison owners will be required to offer the same types of services as their state-run counterparts, from educational programs to medical and dental services. So when it comes to slashing costs, observers say, there are few other ways but cutting staff.

Grafton Correctional has a total of 361 employees, some of whom live in town and all of whom pay taxes to it. Wages start at around $33,000 per year (about $16 an hour) and top out at $43,000, according to Bobbie Peters, president of the Grafton chapter of the Civil Service Employees Association and a records department employee at the prison.

At North Coast, which is privately operated by Management and Training Center Co. of Utah, wages start at $13 an hour, according to Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the ODRC. Nationwide, private prisons pay about one-third less than state-run facilities.

Further savings at North Coast result from slashed employee benefits — fewer vacation and sick days — LoParo says.

But at least the bosses aren't suffering: Executives and managers at North Coast make about 20 percent more than their state-run counterparts, thanks to bonus pay and incentives.

The bid application issued by the ODRC to potential buyers states that the winning bidder should give preference to — but is not required to hire — workers already employed at Grafton. Private operators rarely are unionized, a fact that has Grafton's union force fearful of being let go or forced to take steep pay cuts if they want to continue.

"It's heartbreaking," says Peters.

A 20-year guard at Grafton figures he faces a choice of staying at Grafton under a new owner, finding a new job, or seeking a transfer to another union prison. If he does that, however, he'll have to bump out a worker there with less seniority — a prospect he does not relish.

"People don't realize what goes on inside a prison," says the guard, who spoke for this story on the condition that his name not be used. He's referring to the danger inherent in the jobs and the need to pay decent wages. Conditions are generally peaceful at Grafton, he says, but there is occasional violence; he cites an incident a few months ago when a fellow corrections officer was hit with a belt by an inmate. He's likely to lose one eye because of it.

Many workers at Grafton have stockpiled seniority and formed close relationships with each other, the guard says. Now they fear the loss of their jobs and their way of life.

As Peters puts it: "Morale is horrible."

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