State’s high-security prisons becoming more dangerous

TOLEDO — For the first 12 years of its existence, Toledo Correctional Institution was free of homicides. Then, in early 2012, the state implemented a program designed to make Ohio prisons safer. Since then, there have been two inmate-on-inmate murders and twice as many physical or sexual assaults.

The Toledo prison, along with Dayton Correctional, Lebanon Correctional, and prisons in Mansfield and Chillicothe, has become home to violent maximum-security convicts as part of a new system aimed at getting predators out of lower-security prisons. Most of those prisons saw corresponding increases in serious assaults in 2012, though Lebanon Correctional saw a 10 percent decline, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“The higher-security prisons are going to take one for the team,” said Toledo Warden Ed Sheldon. “We’re going to get the problem children away from the inmates who want to be rehabilitated. The tradeoff is the higher-security prisons are going to be getting more violent inmates.

“These guys, they react. They don’t think. They’re assaultive, they’re disruptive, they’re predatory.”

Prison officials say the new system is beneficial overall: Violent rule infractions, mostly involving fights, were down 7.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, especially in lower-security prisons, according to a new state report. But physical and sexual assault rates were up in 2012, as well as cases of “harassment assault,” involving inmates spitting and throwing bodily fluids on guards.

Corrections spokeswoman JoEllen Smith acknowledged the increases are “largely due to putting our disruptive inmates in the more controlled settings.”

Leaders of the union representing guards and other prison workers say congregating the toughest convicts in select prisons increases the risks of assaults on staff and other inmates, and could set the stage for riots like the bloody 1993 uprising at the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville.

“When you put the most violent inmates in the same institutions, it’s a recipe for disaster, what I fear (could be) another Lucasville,” said Jimmy Adkins, president of the corrections branch of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.

Union officials said budget reductions have cut nearly 700 guards from the system, and short staffing is adding to the risks. “Somebody’s going to have to deal with this situation head-on,” Adkins said, “or we’re going to have more situations like Toledo.”

Crowding creates problems

The state’s largest department, the $1.5 billion prison system houses 50,055 inmates in 28 prisons designed for 38,450. There are 11,798 staff, including 6,216 guards.

Formerly, the Lucasville prison and the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown housed the state’s maximum-security inmates, but disruptive offenders were found in most prisons. Under the new plan, these inmates were reclassified and sent to the new maximum-security units.

Toledo Correctional, which opened in 2000, formerly housed about 950 single-celled inmates, many of whom were from the Toledo area, had local visitors and were motivated to stay out of trouble so they wouldn’t be transferred, Sheldon said. Last year, the population swelled to 1,604 — it now stands at 1,239, slightly over its rated capacity — including hundreds of the state’s most menacing convicts, who are held in a separate cellblock.

Most Toledo inmates now have cellmates. There are 218 security officers to provide seven-day, around-the-clock staffing. Sheldon said the crowding has heightened tensions throughout the prison.

The suspect in the prison’s first homicide was a former Lucasville inmate who had been downgraded to “close security,” a step down from maximum. Lawrence Michael Hensley terrorized the city of Sidney with a 1999 murder spree that claimed the lives of three teenage girls and a Bible study teacher. Now Hensley is charged with aggravated murder in the Sept. 20 strangling of fellow Toledo Correctional inmate Bradley Hamlin.

“He’s a true serial killer,” Sheldon said of Hensley, now 44.

Six months later, maximum-security Toledo inmate Dustin Lynch, a convicted murderer from Medina, was identified as a suspect in the March 10 attack on fellow convict Christopher Trent, formerly of Moraine. Trent, who had told his mother he was targeted for assassination by a prison gang, spent eight days in a hospital burn unit after he was doused with scalding water and stabbed, but he survived.

White supremacist being investigated

Prison officials knew that Lynch of the white supremacist Aryan Nation gang was a suspect in Trent’s assault, yet they placed him in a cell with another inmate, Mexican national and convicted child rapist Arturo Lopez. On March 17, guards found Lopez dead in his cell, strangled with a piece of rope and the word “chomo” — prison slang for child molester — carved in his back.

Sheldon said Lynch, an avowed disciple of Adolf Hitler who killed a teenage girl in her bed in 2002, when he was 15, is a suspect in Lopez’s slaying, too. He is being held in isolation. No criminal charges have been filed, but the Ohio Highway Patrol is investigating.

“I beat myself up” with self-recriminations about the attacks, Sheldon said. “What happened? What could we have done differently?” Sheldon said the blame ultimately lies with him, and “if the (Corrections) director and the governor feel it’s in the best interests of the department that I step aside, I’m more than happy to abide by that decision.”

Trent’s mother, Robin Benson, said her son ran afoul of the Aryans at Ross Correctional in 2010 when one of them stole his television and Trent told the guards. She said Trent was told the gang put a “hit” order out on him.

“I didn’t know whether to believe him or not,” Benson said. “He kept telling me I wasn’t taking it serious enough. I guess I wasn’t.”

Trent, 40, is in the final years of an 18-year sentence for the 1998 involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery of a 16-year-old in Dayton. Sheldon said Trent also is believed to belong to a prison gang, the Berzerker Skinheads. Trent sent Benson letters claiming guards assisted the inmates who assaulted him.

“I believe they’ll kill him,” Benson said. “I don’t believe he’ll come out of there.”

Sheldon said the prison is adding more security cameras and a few more guards.

”It’s a very stressful job,” he said. “I don’t think the general public can understand the stress the staff and the inmates are under on a daily basis. I keep telling them (prison staff), it will stabilize. We do have a handle on it.”

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