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Fights, disturbances up at private prison

Inspectors also found high staff turnover, low morale.

Fights, disturbances and use of force have all increased at a state prison now owned and operated by Corrections Corp. of America, according to a new report released Friday.

The Correctional Institutions Inspection Committee conducted a surprise visit to Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut in mid-January and documented a high presence of gang activity, illegal substance use, frequent extortion and theft and other conditions that make for potentially unsafe conditions.

Inspectors found that staff hesitated to use force when appropriate and had no sanctions for misbehavior other than segregation, which was full. Compounding these issues is high staff turnover and low morale, the report said.

“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 said.

The CIIC report reviewed data from 2010 to 2012 but Corrections Corp of America only handled the prison since Jan. 1, 2012. CCA also saw an 18.2 percent increase in the number of inmates housed at the facility over the prisoner population before the private company took ownership.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen disputed the CIIC findings, saying the data spans three years and different ownership and management. He said CCA made significant security upgrades, such as additional cameras and upgraded fencing, and gang activity has declined from 20.6 percent in January 2012 to 16.5 percent in January 2013.

Nashville-based CCA bought the facility from the state in 2011 and signed a contract to house minimum and medium security inmates at the prison.

This is the second time in less than six months that state inspectors have found poor conditions at the Lake Erie prison. In September, state monitors and auditors found that inmates didn’t have immediate access to running water or toilets and were using plastic bags for defecation and cups for urination. They also documented that inmate complaints about prison gangs, assaults and other problems had doubled since the private operator took over.

CCA disciplined several employees following the poor audit. A re-inspection found that conditions had been improved and the facility later won accreditation from the independent American Correctional Association.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reported Friday that the system wide three-year recidivism rate dropped to 28.7 percent, which is a record low. The previous rate was 31.2 percent and the national average is about 43 percent.

“I am excited to see yet another decline in the number of people who are returning to prison, and I believe the rate of the decline is particularly significant,” said DRC Director Gary Mohr. “Reducing offender recidivism and keeping Ohio’s communities safe are at the core of what we do, and this metric is an indicator of the effectiveness of the work we are doing to change the criminal justice system.”

The current rate is based on offenders released in 2009. During that time period, 4.68 percent of offenders returned to prison on a technical violation of supervision or a supervision sanction, while 23.99 percent returned on a new felony commitment.

The lower rate means about 658 fewer inmates returning to prison, which calculates to about $15.8 million in annual savings to Ohio taxpayers.

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