Overcrowding affecting Ohio Prisons

LANCASTER, Ohio – Rows of steel-framed bunk beds crowd inmates in one dormitory at the Southeastern Correctional Institution, and whatever cramped space that’s left feels even tighter because of the towels, jackets and laundry bags dangling off beds into the narrow aisles. On a recent day, 267 men were in one dorm with less than an arm span between beds. Another dorm, built in the early 1900s, had to pass a special engineering inspection just to hold the load of bunks the state added. That’s just a snapshot of the burgeoning overcrowding in Ohio’s prisons. Facilities are at 132 percent of capacity and prisons director Terry Collins says the problem is getting worse. ‘When you’re pushing more people into a confined space, then they lose personal space,’ said Collins, who heads of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. ‘When any of us lose personal space, it creates extra tension. I mean, none of us like to have somebody right on top of us.’ Collins is pushing sentencing reforms in the state Legislature that he says can help alleviate the problem and save money, including slightly raising dollar thresholds on certain offenses that lead to imprisonment, increasing from one to five the number of days in ‘good time’ that can be shaved off a sentence, and requiring community-based punishments over prison in certain situations. He is scheduled to testify in the state Senate today. The crowding is not unique to Ohio. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, American prisons moved from 2 percent over capacity to 11 percent over capacity between 2000 and 2005, the period for which the latest statistics are available. Collins said he and his colleagues around the country have only seen the problem grow since. Earlier this month, the United Nations’ crimes chief said prison crowding has become a problem worldwide. Violence, theft and a lack of access to programs that could jump-start a crime-free life outside the prison system are all worsening problems as crowding builds, Collins said. Ohio’s prisons are designed to house 38,665 people and are currently housing 50,814. The crowding is bad for inmates, as well as staff, Collins said. ‘Having double bunks certainly creates vision problems,’ he said. ‘Having staff trying to watch a larger number of people than what you’d like to have in the dormitory certainly creates issues.’ Dormitories at the minimum security Fairfield County prison were intended to house bunks along the outside walls and single beds in the center of the room. That configuration would allow guards clear sight lines to observe inmates’ activity. Instead, guards must contend with beds, televisions and personal belongings propped along the concrete ledges while they try to do their job. That creates stress, Collins said. ‘It’s harder to watch 100 than it is to watch 50,’ he said. Inmates spend many hours a day in their dorm area – awaiting ‘count’ five times throughout the day, resting at night and between job assignments, as well as socializing or watching TV, simply because there’s nothing else to do. This prison, one of 32 housing about nearly 51,000 inmates statewide, is designed to house 1,385 prisoners. One day earlier this month, the count was 1,636, with a total security staff of about 200. Inmate Sam Taylor, doing 18 months on a burglary-related parole violation, said ‘things happen’ when this many men are in tight quarters. That includes physical confrontations, gang activity, and theft of inmates’ hard-won commissary items from their lockers while they’re out. There’s no privacy – ever, he said, even to concentrate on a letter sent back home. ‘Even in the bathroom there’s no privacy,’ Taylor said. ‘A lot of guys like me – I’m 35, I’ve got a family out there, I’ve got a baby on the way – I need a lot of ‘me time,’ because I write. You really can’t get that here.’ Meals present perhaps the biggest risk for violent outbreaks, because inmates are crowded, hungry, and gathered in large numbers in the chow hall, Collins said. Collins recognizes that pointing out the discomforts faced by inmates is a tough sell to the public and the Legislature. ‘Maybe some people won’t care that people are on top of one another,’ he said. ‘We care because it’s an issue for my staff, and people should care because it’s an issue for taxpayers. Everybody that’s here is costing we figure 60-some dollars a day to be here.’ ‘