COLUMBUS — Two decades after a deadly prison riot rocked Ohio, current and former union officials said they are concerned about rumblings of understaffing and overcrowding in state prisons.
“It looks like a lot of the red flags that flashed in the early '90s are flashing again in Ohio,” Paul Goldberg, a former executive director of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said in a conference call.
The 1993 riot at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution near Lucasville, one of the longest in U.S. history, resulted in the death of corrections officer Robert Vallandingham and nine inmates. Vallandingham was one of 12 staff hostages held after inmates took over the “L” block unit of the maximum-security prison. The siege began on April 11 — Easter — and lasted 11 days.
OCSEA President Christopher Mabe said, “Short staffing and overcrowding are the No. 1 issues today, just as they were before the riot.” The ratio of inmates to corrections officers, which rose to 8.8-to-1 in the 1990s, fell in the 2000s, but it is back up to about 7.3-to-1. That’s higher than the national average and “not acceptable,” Mabe said.
Gary Mohr, Ohio prisons director, said the state has made sweeping changes since the Lucasville riot, including constructing the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown to house the “the worst of the worst” inmates; keeping maximum-security inmates alone in cells; installing 4,000 security cameras in the past two years alone; adding special response teams in every prison; and implementing a rigorous classification system to better identify and isolate troublemakers.
Union officials said that the state has made improvements in the two decades, but that many of the recommendations by the union after the riot — in areas such as staffing, gang activity and crisis management — remain largely unresolved.
Mabe said the 904 additional corrections-officer positions approved by state officials after the riot have been erased by budget cutbacks. However, records show that prisons have 49,993 inmates and 6,235 officers; in 1994, there were 41,468 inmates and 4,882 officers. That is a 20.6 percent jump in the inmate population and a 27.7 percent increase in the corrections staff.
Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, who was on a recent conference call, said he is particularly concerned about Ohio prison officials’ plan to turn inmate food service over to a private contractor. “Bad food is always a bad idea in a restaurant. … But in a restaurant, people walk out. In a prison, they can’t.”