Prison agency seeks high-security facility replacements

Prison agency seeks high-security facility replacements
In this Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020 photo, Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, poses outside her office in Columbus, Ohio. Smith says the prisons agency wants to replace or renovate some of its high-security prisons in the near future, saying its current facilities for violent inmates are "functionally obsolete and creating security risks for the agency. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio prison system wants to replace or renovate some of its high-security prisons in the near future, saying its current facilities for violent inmates are “functionally obsolete" and creating security risks for the agency, The Associated Press has learned.

More low-security inmates are now being housed outside of state prison at the same time more violent inmates are being housed in Ohio prisons, and for longer terms, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in its capital budget request to Gov. Mike DeWine.

“Furthermore, this population is particularly violent and disruptive while in prison and requires unique programming needs,” the agency said in its budget documents, obtained by the AP through an open records request.

“Currently, existing high security beds are functionally obsolete, creating security risks and programming challenges,” the request said. The agency wants approval for a two-year design study of its options, with construction possible by mid-2023. DeWine is expected to formally propose his capital budget later this year.

The construction would replace or update current facilities, not grow the number of beds in the system, said Annette Chambers-Smith, the DRC director.

“We're not trying to build more prisons,” Chambers-Smith told the AP. “But what we are trying to do is make sure we can safely and effectively house the population we're expecting to have.”

The number of inmates in the two highest-security categories rose from 1,882 in 2015 to 2,270 last year, according to DRC records. Overall, one in three inmates is now considered violent.

Meanwhile, the number of prisoners in the lower-risk categories fell during the same time period.

Supervising violent inmates in current facilities is dangerous, as is offering them programs that could help them when they're released, Chambers-Smith said. Although studies show inmates do best when learning skills from staff or other prisoners, high-security inmates often receive education through computer tablets because of difficulties safely moving them to classrooms, she said.

Like many states, Ohio experienced a prison building boom about three decades ago, which was accompanied by a huge increase in the number of inmates, at a cost of billions to taxpayers.

Beginning about a decade ago, Ohio lawmakers have tried with mixed results to reduce the state's prison population to save money and lower rates of recidivism by keeping offenders out of prison and in community facilities closer to home.

The prison population was 48,957 in December, down from 49,255 in December 2018. The system's population peaked at 51,273 in November 2008.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said it's sympathetic to the prison system's proposal for replacement facilities. But lawmakers still aren't doing enough to address the far bigger issue of dramatically reducing the overall prison population, said Gary Daniels, the ACLU's chief Ohio lobbyist.

“There needs to be longer-term thinking of ‘less people in prison over time, not more.’” Daniels said.

Around the country, replacement over addition appears to be the trend when it comes to building new high-security prisons.

In 2018, Pennsylvania moved more than 2,600 inmates, including dozens of high-risk inmates, from an 89-year-old prison to a new, $400 million facility. In Iowa, the state built a new 800-bed maximum security facility in 2015 to replace an 1830s-era building.

Colorado last opened a high-security prison in 2010 but closed it in 2012 due to declining prison population and concerns over solitary confinement. Lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis have allocated funds to prepare it to partially reopen in case bed space is needed.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey is considering a proposal to build or lease several regional mega-prisons to replace most state prisons for men.

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Kimberly Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jim Anderson in Denver; David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa; and Ryan Foley in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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