The new state prisons director is tamping down on escalating violence in Ohio’s 31 prisons, where inmate-on-inmate assaults have jumped 20.6 percent last year over 2007 and disturbances involving four or more prisoners increased 102 percent during the same period.
So far this year, Ohio’s prison system has been averaging 123 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 88 inmate-on-staff assaults each month. The assaults range from minor incidents, such as a prisoner spitting on someone, to vicious attacks.
Seven homicides have been recorded in the prisons since 2007.
Violence is a constant concern of both guards and inmates. Jeremy Yantes, 32, was working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift on March 3 at Madison Correctional Institution, overseeing a cellblock with 122 inmates by himself when inmate Keith DeWitt beat him with a padlock in a gym sock.
The attack landed Yantes in the hospital for 10 days and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain damage.
The data on inmate assaults on staff shows a slight improvement, from 1,048 incidents during the 2007 fiscal year to 984 last year.
To curb violence, the state needs more corrections officers on duty, Yantes said. “The prisoners are not in there for hugging puppies and saving kitties out of tall trees,” he said. “The danger is always there that they’re going to turn on you.”
Brawls break out regularly with an average of 10 inmates jumping in on the action. Last year, a fight between rival gangs involved 47 inmates at Noble Correctional Institution. At the Lebanon Correctional Institution, a brawl broke out between a dozen or so inmates during a soccer game in the recreation yard.
“All the violence against officers, all of it, is unprovoked, unexpected,” said Lebanon Correctional Officer Rick Stiehl, 51, who had his nose and three teeth broken by an inmate last year. “Who knows what’s going through an inmate’s mind? If they have ulterior motives; it could be a particular inmate wants to get into a gang and they have to earn their bones.”
Corrections officers and managers point to a rise in prison gangs, inmate overcrowding and staff cuts as factors contributing to the uptick in assaults and fights.
Under those conditions, tension and violence are almost inevitable, said Lebanon Correctional Officer Phil Morris, 34, a seven-year prison veteran. “You’re basically taking people of all walks of life, some of them from different security threat groups (gangs), and forcing them to live together.”
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr is making changes that he says will improve safety for the state’s 51,000 inmates and 13,000 prison workers.
The first step is a zero-tolerance policy for assaults on staff or violent, disruptive gang activity, Mohr said. Those inmates will be penalized through restricted movement and fewer privileges.
Moving death row from the Ohio State Penitentiary and Mansfield Correctional Institution to Chillicothe Correctional Institution is part of that zero-tolerance policy. The move is expected to open 300 close-security single cells to hold those who misbehave.
Mohr also is focusing more resources on preventative measures — bolstering unit management staff in hopes of ironing out long-standing inmate issues, such as family contact, visitor lists, programming, and cellmate disputes.
Richard Huggins, Lebanon’s unit management administrator, calls his job the “preventative side of security.”
DRC spokesman Carlo LoParo said prison managers can’t really end overcrowding or eliminate gangs, but they can hire unit management staff to help head off trouble. At Lebanon, 2,800 inmates are squeezed into a facility built in 1960 for 1,400 prisoners.
Said Stiehl: “I’m looking forward to the changes because what’s going on now isn’t working.”
He noted, though, that he would rather see more security officers hired than unit managers. “I think it sounds great. I think in reality it is not going to work as well as they think it will,” Stiehl said. “A lot of these gang members take pride in going to the hole. They’ll take their lumps to solidify their status and defiance.”
DRC data show gang members are three times more likely to be involved in these fights than non-gang members. Last year, 93.5 percent of the disturbances involved at least one gang member.
The Heartless Felons, a gang that started in the juvenile prison system, follows a code: members will fight en masse, said Lebanon Correctional Warden Tim Brunsman. “Their bylaws say if a member fights a guy by himself, he’ll be in trouble (with the gang,)” he said.
More long term, Mohr wants to organize the prison system so that troublemakers are in controlled units, the bulk of inmates are in general population prisons and those close to their release dates are in “re-integration” prisons where they work productive jobs and have some contact with community members who may be able to help them once they’re out.
The Miami Valley is home to three state prisons, housing 4,558 inmates and employing 1,058 people.
Mohr won a long-fought legislative battle earlier this year when lawmakers adopted a comprehensive sentencing reform package. The changes will divert thousands of low-level, nonviolent offenders into treatment and community-based programs and allow Mohr and his staff to give earned time off their sentences to new inmates who participate in job training, rehab and education programs. Supporters say the changes will help prison officials better manage the inmate population.
Mohr, however, isn’t satisfied with the landmark legislation. He plans to ask lawmakers for more changes early next year, including eliminating some “collateral sanctions” that hurt ex-offenders’ chances of getting jobs, such as losing their driver’s license. He also wants lawmakers to apply the “earned credit” provisions to all state inmates, not just the ones sentenced after the bill took effect at the end of September.
Mohr’s plan calls for building bridges between inmates on the inside and possible jobs on the outside so that they have a smoother, less-abrupt transition back into the community. As it is, when inmates are released, they are given $75 and a two week supply of prescribed medication.
He wants to expand the Ohio Penal Industries so that inmates have more job experience while they’re locked up. Mohr is working with the Ohio Department of Development to find businesses that would hire inmates to do productive work that is currently being done overseas.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who was a driving force behind the sentencing reform package, said he is ready to help.
“The cause of criminal justice reform is not something that when you’re done with one bill, you’re done,” he said. “... Certainly the reduction in collateral sanctions is a good idea. Certainly, trying to better align our prison job training programs with what today’s workforce needs is a great idea. ...We are gearing up and that should be something on the horizon for next year.”
Contact this reporter at (614) 224-1624 or lbischoff@DaytonDaily News.com.