Prisoners with gang links to be isolated

Plan that affects Dayton, Lebanon prisons focuses on curbing violence.

Dayton Correctional Institution is already home to five violent and disruptive women inmates, while Lebanon and Toledo Correctional will eventually house male inmates who pose high-level threats to prison security.

“We’re stratifying our system and putting inmates where they belong,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“We have a lot of inmates who want to do the right thing, and (this system) will give them the freedom to do that without fear” of being preyed upon by gangs.

Under a plan unveiled to wardens earlier this month, Ohio’s $1.5 billion prison system will switch within a year to a three-tiered structure that will isolate more gang members in maximum-security “control” settings in efforts to quell escalating levels of inmate violence. Most of the state’s 50,000 inmates will be in the general prison population, while those nearing release will be in “reintegration centers” to prepare them for life in the free world, complete with eight-hour-a-day jobs.

There are nine levels of freedom in the three tiers, and inmates can gain privileges through good behavior and completing rehabilitative programming. They also lose privileges by getting into trouble.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” said U.S. District Judge Walter H. Rice, who heads Dayton’s prison re-entry efforts. He said the plan “addresses the realities” of increasing gang activity and complements sentencing reform approved last fall, which reinstitutes time off for good behavior.

“It’s often said that people learn to be better criminals in prison,” Rice said. “This will separate the hardened criminals from those who still have a chance to turn their lives around.”

Mohr, who became prisons director in January 2011, said he’s also reinstituting the 1980s policy of “unit management” — shifting personnel from the central office to the cellblocks to provide more direct supervision of inmates. Due to budget cuts, the system moved away from unit management in 2008 and has since seen a torrent of contraband and a doubling in the frequency of significant disturbances to an average of one every two weeks, he said.

The new tiered system will add an estimated 300 to 500 gang-affiliated inmates to the maximum security and “supermax” classifications, said department Operations Chief Todd Ishee. Inmates who are violent or seriously disruptive will be screened for possible placement in control units. In many cases, they’ll be held in solitary confinement and locked in their cells except for a one-hour solitary recreation period.

The Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown will remain the only “supermax” prison, but maximum-security units will be added to Dayton, Lebanon and Toledo Correctional Institutions. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville remains a maximum-security lockup.

“We are going to remove more of the disruptive and dangerous inmates out of our general population,” Ishee said. “That’s going to make our general population and transitional units much safer for staff and inmates.”

Dayton Correctional already has five maximum-security female inmates, department spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said. It became an all-female prison last fall.

Smith said the security changes will be done with existing staff at no additional cost to the state.

Officials hope that will allow the majority of inmates to concentrate on programming to help them become law-abiding citizens upon release. Because the new system builds in incentives for good behavior, officials hope the number in higher security classifications eventually will decline after an initial increase.

These are commendable aims, said Shakyra Diaz, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. But she said prison officials should be mindful of the psychological costs of keeping inmates in solitary confinement for long periods.

“We have to constantly re-evaluate (inmate) classifications,” she said. “Something like 97 percent of people who are incarcerated are released, most within a year. It’s in all our interests that they return (to society) in such a condition where they can be law-abiding citizens. Being in isolation has been linked to higher recidivism rates.”

Diaz said it’s inevitable there will be problems in the current climate of prison crowding: Ohio houses more than 50,000 inmates in 29 prisons built for 38,000. And “as we make reforms, our prisons need to be adequately staffed.”

Prison officials note the three-tier plan has clear guidelines for how inmates can work their way out of solitary. “They still would have a sense of hope,” Ishee said. “We’ll give them a real clear avenue to get out.”

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