State union head blames Lima prison escape on understaffing

LIMA — The head of Ohio’s largest state employees union said too little staff and too much mandatory overtime contributed to two inmates escaping from Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution last week.

“It’s a perfect storm. You can’t be 70 officers short and mandate entire shifts to work 16 hours a day over and over in a prison,” Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said in a press release. “It’s not safe for staff or inmates. It has consequences. And in this instance, serious consequences. We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it. Something’s got to give.”

JoEllen Smith, communications chief for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, noted Allen-Oakwood Correction Institution actually had 48 total correction officer vacancies, as of Tuesday.

”The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction shares the same priorities as our union partners – the safety of our staff and the secure operation of Ohio’s facilities,” Smith said via email. “An internal investigation is underway into the escape, and appropriate actions will be taken based on the findings of that investigation.”

Last week, AOCI acknowledged two men escaped the prison sometime Monday or Tuesday after concealing themselves in a dumpster that was taken off the property. Kentucky officials apprehended escaped inmate James Lee on Wednesday. Henderson, Ky., police announced Sunday that Bradley Gillespie, who had been serving a sentence for two murders in Paulding County, was found dead floating in the Ohio River.

The preliminary autopsy, released Wednesday, showed Gillespie drowned. Toxicology results won’t be available for several weeks, according to the Henderson County coroner’s office.

Five people have been placed on paid leave during an investigation, including Major Carl Bendross and correction officers Derrick Coil, Tre’mon Glenn-Crawford, Lain Patterson and Taylor Robey. The Ohio State Highway Patrol is leading the criminal investigation, with an internal investigation by ODRC.

Mabe, who worked for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as a correction officer and sergeant for more than 25 years, suggested the prison reduce the number of inmate programs, curb movement of inmates and reconfigure visitations to require less staffing.

“We can’t continue to operate as if it’s business as usual,” Mabe said.

According to the OCSEA, AOCI routinely closes posts inside the prison, putting more pressure on staff to oversee the 44-acre prison. Smith noted at the time of the incident, all posts were fully staffed at AOCI.

The union, which represents 27,000 state employees, including nearly 8,000 working for the ODRC, also claims there are staff mandates to work back-to-back overtime. Smith noted correction officers who work overtime earn an extra $50 per overtime shift, on top of overtime pay, creating more volunteering and less mandated overtime. The state also offers food and lodging to staff who are mandated to work overtime, Smith said.

The prison should have 470 staff, according to the ODRC’s web page about the prison.

Mabe also criticized the ODRC for investing in technology instead of employees, calling for a higher wage resembling the increases police officers have gained over the years to make corrections jobs more attractive.

“They need to stop supplanting people with technology,” Mabe said. “First, technology like body cams is not going to stop inmates from escaping. It’s not going to keep officers from being tired. It’s not going to keep them safe. They’re not effective. Let’s spend our resources on what is effective: People.”

The ODRC’s Smith noted the introduction in April 2022 of a new, increased pay structure, with step increases of 5.3% in April 2022, 3.0% in July 2022. Senior officers were scheduled to see a 13.8% increase then with another 3.0% in July. It also offered correction officers who’d left the opportunity to return at the same step where they were when they left.

Mabe also expressed his concern that statewide, prisons were 2,000 officers short, numbers reminiscent of the deadly Lucasville riot at Southern Correctional Facility that killed a correction officer and nine inmates in 1993.

Smith said there were actually 1,063 correction officer vacancies across the state, with an overall vacancy rate of 13.59%. At the same time, the number in Ohio’s prison population has dropped nearly 4,500 people since January 2019, she said.

Last week’s escape came nearly nine years after another group of inmates escaped the facility. In September 2014, T.J. Lane, Clifford Opperud and Lindsey Bruce escaped the prison but were recaptured after a six-hour search. Lane was serving three life sentences after killing three in a 2012 school shooting in Chardon.

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.