Workers protest prison sale plan

GRAFTON — Union workers and state officials protested Monday at Grafton Correctional Institution, which could be sold by the state.

Gov. John Kasich is expected to announce today a budget plan that includes the sale of five state prisons, including two in Lorain County.

“We house a lot of older guys who are sick,” said Michelle Mowery, a corrections officer at Grafton Correctional. “Those who are seriously ill, like one guy who is 90, and has to go for chemo every week … or more violent prisoners … are not taken by private prisons. They can refuse them. Those prisoners are given back to us (the state), and we have to take them by law.”

Mowery, a seven-year veteran of GCI, said privatized prisons can boast of lower costs because they are not required to bear the price of caring for older, ill or more violent offenders.

Grafton Correctional Institution and North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, a substance-abuse treatment facility adjacent to Grafton Correctional, are to be sold as a package deal, according to state Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, who said he learned of the decision during a phone call Monday from Gary C. Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“Given the dramatic impact this would make on so many lives and families, we need to take more time to talk this through,” Lundy said. “I’m confident if we could get everybody together, we could find savings of 5 to 10 percent. Unfortunately, there appears to be very little interest in having those conversations right now. We need to stop this bus instead of letting the bus run over people.”

Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said he couldn’t comment until the budget is released today.

State Rep. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, said he does not want to have a private firm “come in and low-ball all employees by $5 an hour.”

“I want to see those employees protected who are there. We do not need to privatize things for the sake of money,” Boose said. “If it can be proven to me that we will save money by doing this, and maintain employees who are there, or a good part of them, then I would consider it. But I need to see all the details before agreeing to sell prisons or turn their management over to a privatized operation.”

The new state budget would take effect July 1.

The prison sales, coupled with legislation dramatically curbing collective bargaining rights for state employees, are designed to help the state curb a deficit estimated to be as high as $8 billion.

Boose said he also wants to compare true costs of state-run prisons versus those in private hands, including the costs of caring for ill inmates.

“I want to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” he said.

Bobbie Peters, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, represents roughly 380 unionized workers at Grafton Correctional. During a noontime gathering near the prison, Peters said the move won’t help the state.

“They won’t be creating jobs — they’ll end up trading jobs,” Peters said. “Either way you look at it, state employees will be out of work. Those with more seniority will bump those with less. Private interests are under no obligation to keep us.”

Peters, who has worked at Grafton Correctional since 1990, said private firms spend more per prisoner per day than the state.

“So where’s the savings?” she said.

State prison guards start out earning $32,000, while privatized guards earn a starting wage of about $22,000, Peters said. Grafton Correctional, which houses about 1,500 inmates, spends about
$30 million a year. The nearby North Coast Correctional, which is run by Management & Training Corp., a Utah-based corporation that operates many prisons around the country, houses roughly 700.

The sale of GCI, North Coast, North Central Correctional Institution in Marion and the Marion Juvenile Correctional Institution (which is empty at present) is part of the Republican governor’s widespread plan to privatize state-run operations, including leasing out the Ohio Turnpike.

Gov. John Kasich has argued that turning such state-run ventures into private operations will reduce costs while netting state coffers proceeds from the sale of assets.

One possible benefit of a sale of state prisons, according to Chief Deputy Lorain County Auditor Linda Keys, would be that the county would start collecting property taxes. State-owned prisons are exempt from property taxes.

“A sale means one-time money,” said Christopher Mabe, a corrections counselor at Grafton Correctional. “It’s a temporary fix for a long-term problem.”

Mabe is also vice president of the OCSEA chapter headed by Peters.

“The big difference is that we have roots here,” Mabe said. “These corporations don’t expect anyone to work a location more than five years or so and then move on. There wouldn’t be that same stability that comes from people who have been here and intend to remain here.”

Mabe and others gestured to a busy convenience store nearby.

“You see state people in there all the time buying coffee and lunches and such,” Mabe said. “Those are people who live here and plan on being here.”

Mabe also talked about other potential problems that could occur under a privatized prison operation.

“You’ve got people making lower wages, with less training, guarding these people,” he said. “Things could become less secure for the community.”

Monday’s news conference was attended by about 20 prison workers, many of whom held green “It’s About Freedom” signs. The meeting was delayed by about 15 minutes after the group was informed by prison officials that it could not be staged on prison grounds, even at the driveway into the prison off state Route 83. Eventually, the group moved the meeting a few miles north in the parking lot of the Eaton Township Hall.

Lundy noted that Mohr, whom Kasich recently appointed director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, consulted for Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville-based company that houses about 75,000 state and federal prisoners in 60 facilities.

“The governor said he (Mohr) would not be allowed to be part of any negotiations (on sale of prisons) because of his previous ties to the firm,” Lundy said. “I’m not questioning his character. He has a lot of experience. But even if there is a perception of a conflict of interest, it must be dealt with immediately.”

Steve Owen, director of public affairs for Corrections Corporation of America, said it was premature to comment on any interest the corporation might have in any Ohio prison.

“Like you, we’re waiting to see what the budget will be like,” Owen said. “We’re monitoring a lot of state budgets right now. Till we know what policymakers are going to do, we’re in no position to say whether we are or are not interested.”

Meanwhile, the union plans informational picketing and other efforts to get the word out about the situation at the prisons, Peters said.

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