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‘There is no oversight:’ Staff cuts leave Ohio prison inspections to interns

January 20, 2019

‘There is no oversight:’ Staff cuts leave Ohio prison inspections to interns

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The staff of the legislative watchdog that monitors the Ohio prison system is so depleted that it uses interns to evaluate the state’s correctional facilities, authorities said.

The administrative staff of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee has just one full-time employee. Five years ago, it had six: a director and five inspectors with backgrounds in the criminal justice system.

Because of the shortage of employees, the staff has struggled to meet its most crucial role: to write and disseminate reports to legislators and the public on the state’s 27 prisons and three juvenile facilities, according to interviews and a review of records.

The latest prison inspection reports were placed online in 2017. Five years ago, the reports were posted online within a month of a prison’s inspection.

“There are serious issues within the corrections system in Ohio, and people should be concerned that there is no oversight,’’ Joanna Saul, the former director of the agency, told The Plain Dealer.

Ohio prison spending

Critics say the shrinking of the staff is disturbing, as it offered a critical eye on a prison system that spent nearly $1.8 billion in 2018. The committee is the only group in Ohio that performs inspections and examines the issues that deal with inmates and the conditions inside the facilities’ walls, such as healthcare, use of force and violence, and writes reports on the issues.

The Ohio Inspector General’s office examines prisons in a separate manner, investigating complaints of fraud and misuse of state resources. The Ohio State Highway Patrol investigates major crimes.

State lawmakers are expected to assign members to the bipartisan committee from the House and Senate this week, a move that some say will determine the panel’s future – whether it exists with a single staff member or as the aggressive unit of the past.

Senior Republican leaders in the House and Senate declined to comment until the assignments are handed out. Some Democrats who have served on the committee, did not return messages seeking comment.

A shadow of the past

State legislators in 1977 formed a committee of both houses to provide an unbiased account of the workings of the prison system.

The committee was not created in response to a crisis. Instead, then-Rep. C.J. McLin Jr., a Dayton Democrat, pushed for a permanent legislative panel that would be “proactive and preventative,’’ according to the committee’s website.

Today, the committee’s staff is a shadow of the unit that produced in-depth reports on contraband, gang violence, illegal drugs, prison workers’ overtime and other issues.

For example, in a 1991 report, the unit highlighted serious problems at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. It cited severe overcrowding and understaffing among prison personnel, issues that came up two years later when a riot there killed nine prisoners and one officer.

“It’s an incredibly important function to monitor the state’s prison system,’’ said Greta Johnson, a former member of the House who served on the committee from January 2015 through March 2017 as a Democrat from Akron. “While there are incredible interns working at the statehouse, the inspection of prisons should be done by legislators and paid staff.’’

Attorneys Alice and Staughton Lynd have worked for more than 20 years as advocates for inmates and echoed Johnson’s comments. The Lynds are known for their role in fighting the state in the early 2000s over confinement conditions at the Ohio State Penitentiary near Youngstown.

“The purpose of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, as defined by Ohio law, includes maintaining a continuing program of inspection of each state correctional institution and improving the condition and operation of the state’s prisons,’’ the Lynds said in an email.

“To have inexperienced interns investigating and evaluating what is going on in Ohio prisons is not what the statute requires.’’

The staff usually has two or three interns, who are unpaid and typically in their early 20s. They are pursuing college degrees and have interests in corrections. They usually stay on for months at a time, as there is no time frame that they must follow.

In the past, their duties have included collecting and analyzing complaints from inmates and assisting on research. Because of the shortage of staff, those duties have increased to include working on inspections.

A fight over access

The committee began spiraling in May 2016, when its then-director, Saul, resigned amid what she called pressure from Republicans in the General Assembly who chafed over her attempts to gain access to medical and mental health information. It was the latest in a series of scrapes between Saul and with legislators over documents and information.

Saul, in a late-night email to the Ohio Senate before she resigned, wrote: “We have 50,000 people incarcerated, and someone should be asking questions on what happens to the people in those facilities.’’

In the email, she stressed that the state’s prison system was the sixth largest in the country and needed “someone – even a staff of just six people – to actually go into prisons, inquire into issues such as use of force, medical care, mental health, the grievance procedure, food services, etc., and objectively report on them’’ to the legislature.

“Do you not think your constituents deserve that?’’ she wrote.

John Fortney, a Senate aide, said lawmakers believed that Saul had gone beyond the scope of the committee’s bounds when she sought various information.

Some members of the House and Senate were prepared to silence the agency by reducing the inspections and shuttering the staff. They dropped that fight after Saul agreed to resign after six years on the job.

Nearly 18 months after Saul’s resignation, the chairman of the committee, Cliff Hite, a Republican from Findlay, resigned from the Senate in October 2017 after a legislative staff member complained that Hite had repeatedly propositioned her for sex.

Once Hite left office, the committee’s meetings stopped. Hite declined to discuss the committee or its dealings with Saul.

Johnson, the former House member from Akron, said the panel met only two or three times in the more than two years she was on the committee, an indication she said of the indifference of some members.

Today, Saul is the prison ombudsman for the state of Washington.

‘This has been troubling’

Doug Green, a House Republican from Southwest Ohio, resurrected the meetings in November after he was appointed interim chairman.

Green said he hopes to bring accountability to the committee. He acknowledged the work of the interns working on the inspections.

“As you might imagine, this has been troubling for me,’’ Green said. “People can go above and beyond for a while, but to do that with one employee is unrealistic.’’

Green said inspection reports of correctional facilities are up to date. He said, however, that the staff “has been unable to provide the courtesy of placing the reports online.”

He said he speaks frequently with Charlotte Adams, the only full-time employee of the staff. Adams holds the title of senior research analyst. She declined to comment, referring questions to Green’s office. She has been the staff’s sole employee for several months.

Adams, 52, has a deep background in corrections, serving as an administrator in the Ohio prison system for nearly 20 years, according to interviews and published reports. She oversees inspections and creates reports for the legislature. Most importantly, she maintains communication with legislators.

The staff has a budget of $447,000, which is slightly less than the $460,000 that Saul had when she served as director in 2016, records show. The office today, however, spends a fraction of the budgeted amount. Its largest expense appears to be Adams’ salary. She earned $51,130 last year.

A prison spokeswoman declined to comment, referring questions on the committee to Green.

Critics said the prison system, as well as legislators, should embrace a strong oversight.

“Things break down,’’ said Tim Young, the state’s public defender. “We’re human. We mess things up. Any good business wants to know where things break.

“Good government is the same way. The inspection committee is there to make everyone safer, both the employees and the inmates. This isn’t a namby-pamby exercise to just do. It’s to ensure safety.’’

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Just The Facts

What is the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee?

The bipartisan Ohio legislative panel monitors the state’s 27 adult prisons and three juvenile facilities.

Here are details about the committee’s work and its structure:

Makeup: The committee is made up of eight members, four from the Ohio House and Senate. It also has an administrative staff to conduct prison inspections and write reports to legislators and the public on the inspections, as well as on issues affecting inmates and prison staff. In the past, the in-depth reports have focused on food service, contraband, gang violence and medical care. The committee’s also staff takes complaints from inmates on conditions in prisons.

Prisons: The committee oversees 27 adult prisons: Allen-Oakwood, Belmont, Chillicothe, Correctional Reception Center, Dayton, Franklin Medical Center, Grafton, Lebanon, London, Lorain, Madison, Mansfield, Marion, Noble, Northeast Re-Integration, Ohio Reformatory for Women, Ohio State Penitentiary, Pickaway, Richland, Ross, Southeastern, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, Toledo, Trumbull, Warren, North Central Correctional Complex and Lake Erie Correctional.

Juvenile facilities: The committee oversees three juvenile facilities: Circleville, Cuyahoga Hills and Indian River.

History: The committee formed in 1977 when then-Rep. C.J. McLin of Dayton deemed it vital to have a legislative watchdog that would oversee the prison system.

By the numbers: The Ohio prison system spent nearly $1.8 billion last year. It had 49,255 inmates in December.

Source: State public records, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, prison reports.

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