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April 20, 2011

Robust debate in Ohio over Governor's plan to sell prisons to private company

One very interesting policy debate now raging in Ohio concerns our new Governor's proposal to sell some state prisons to private companies.  This new article in the Columbus Dispatch, headlined "Ohio's new prisons chief pushes reforms; Plan to sell facilities is just 'stabilizing' step, one that's drawn fire," profiles Ohio's new prisons chief and includes a partial defense of the plan:

The governor calls Gary Mohr 'a reformer.' Others call him less-complimentary things. That's what happens when the new head of Ohio's prison system, in his first three months on the job, decides to sell five prisons, turn three of them over to private operators, and lay off 115 parole employees.

Mohr said recent weeks have been the most difficult of his nearly 37-year career in the corrections business. He has been ripped by critics inside and outside the system. But Mohr insists that selling prisons isn't reform; it's "stabilizing" to keep the agency afloat.

He has a larger reform vision of creating a three-tier corrections system, bracketed by "integration" prisons, where inmates work, study and focus on self-development so they can be released to the community, and "control" prisons for the truly bad who are in it for the long haul....

Sentencing reform is one of Mohr's priorities. A series of proposed moves are projected to save nearly 7,000 prison beds: granting credit for an earlier release for prisoners who complete work in education, vocational or employment training, or substance-abuse education; funneling nonviolent, low-level offenders to community corrections facilities; equalizing the penalties for crack and powder cocaine; and allowing early release for inmates who've served 85 percent of their sentences. Most of the proposals are in the pending state budget bill....

[Upon appointment,] Mohr found what he viewed as an alarming and unacceptable plan to close six prisons and ship 12,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities. He countered by suggesting the sale of two state-run facilities, two privately operated prisons, and a closed juvenile facility in Marion. The department has sent prospective buyers a request for proposals.

Tim Schafer, a former prison corrections officer and now an officer with the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, has known Mohr for 20 years. He said the union has had a good working relationship with him in the past, but now "we have a director who is playing more politics than he is directing."

"I understand he's got a boss who's very pro-privatization. The sad thing is, we've been able to work together on every single issue that's come up in prisons. ... Now, generally, we have to pick up the newspaper to find out what's going to happen to us next."

Meanwhile, as revelaed in this press release, earlier this week the group Policy Matters Ohio published this new report critical of the Governor's prison plan under the titled "Cells for Sale: Understanding Prison Costs & Savings."  This page provides links to the report and summarizes its contents this way:

Since the first private prisons were opened in Ohio in 2000, Ohio law has required that any private operator produce savings of at least 5 percent compared to what it would cost the state to operate the same facility.  This April 2011 report, written by journalist Bob Paynter for Policy Matters Ohio, finds that cost calculations performed over a number of years by the state have not reliably demonstrated the savings required under the law.  A demonstration of lower cost is not sufficient reason to give over this most sensitive government function to private, profit-making companies.  But now, with the Kasich administration proposing to sell five state-owned prisons, Paynter’s findings undercut the primary rationale that has been given for doing so.

Some recent related posts on Ohio's prison sale plans:

April 20, 2011 at 09:08 AM | Permalink

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