State eyes rules for privately run prison

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — A legislative committee wants Ohio’s only privately run prison to be run just like the ones the state runs. That way, lawmakers figure, it might do a better job of keeping murderers inside its walls.

“There needs to be a greater level of oversight and monitoring,” said Sen. Rhine McLin (D., Dayton).

Ms. McLin chairs the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, which has spent the last two months holding hearings and gathering testimony on the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown. That prison is owned by Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America and houses prisoners sentenced in the Washington, D.C. court system.

The prison has been plagued by troubles since it opened last year, with dozens of stabbings, two murders, and accusations of improper and unsafe staff training.

Most notorious were the events of July 25, when six inmates, in broad daylight, cut holes through two fences in a recreation area and escaped. Four of the men were serving sentences for murder.

Correctional officers did not detect the escape until another inmate let them know about it. All six were eventually recaptured, one near the Canadian border.

In a report released yesterday, the panel said the inmates had somehow gained access to a wire cutter before the escape. When the breakout occurred, the number of guards watching the recreation area was below the number required by CCA rules, and half of the ones who were there were had walked away from their positions, leaving a portion of the yard unsupervised.

In addition, the motion detectors on an eight-foot section of the perimeter fence were set up incorrectly, meaning that approaching the fence would not set them off, the report said.

Guards never figured this out, even though the detectors had been misaligned for several months and they were supposed to have been tested repeatedly. But inmates did; they did their own testing for several weeks by kicking soccer balls at it and noticing alarms did not go off.

Among the recommendations made by the panel report:

* Private prisons should be required to meet the same standards of employee training, security, and inmate programs that Ohio state prisons do.

* They should not be allowed to house any inmates classified higher than medium security, or who have a history of violence in previous prison stays. The committee found that some maximum-security prisoners were “deliberately misclassified” by Washington officials after Youngstown officials were told only medium-security inmates would be housed there.

* The attorney general’s office should review any deal forged with a local government to open a private prison to ensure that the proposal follows state law.

“Halleluja~h!” said Attorney General Betty Montgomery, who said that sort of oversight is necessary.

* No private prison should be allowed to receive a tax abatement. Such a move would remove one of the major financial incentives private prisons have to come to Ohio, possibly discouraging them from locating here.

CCA officials said they were ready to work with state officials on the committee’s recommendations and had already begun implementing some, including removing all prisoners higher than medium security from Youngstown.

Tavares urges 4-way debates; Democrat says all candidates should be included

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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State Rep. Charleta Tavares has broken ranks with the leader of her Democratic ticket on the issue of debates.

Ms. Tavares (D., Columbus), who is her party’s nominee for secretary of state, said gubernatorial candidate Lee Fisher should be willing to debate the three other people running for governor – including the two minor-party candidates who stand little chance of winning.

“It’s got to be inclusive,” Ms. Tavares said. “Whatever is good for Republicans and Democrats should be good for Libertarians, Greens, and so on.”

Mr. Fisher, trailing in polls to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft, has said he would participate in a four-way debate only if Mr. Taft agrees to a series of one-on-one debates.

Mr. Taft, Ohio’s secretary of state, has said he won’t do that, and would only participate in debates that included Reform Party candidate John Mitchel and Natural Law candidate Zanna Feitler.

Both Ms. Feitler and Mr. Mitchel receive less than 4 per cent support in statewide polls. Each raised less than $1,000 in the last campaign-finance reporting period, compared with $1.1 million each for Mr. Taft and Mr. Fisher.

But Ms. Tavares said that didn’t matter.

“I would encourage everyone to have all candidates at the debates,” she said. “I disagree with our candidate on this point.”

The secretary of state is Ohio’s top elections official and Ms. Tavares said that, if elected, she would make it easier for third-party candidates to get onto ballots. Ohio has a reputation as a difficult state for third parties, with high ballot requirements.

“Certainly, Charleta is entitled to disagree with us,” said Alan Melamed, Mr. Fisher’s campaign manager. “We don’t have an objection to four-way debates. But there should also be one-on-ones.”

The Taft campaign welcomed Ms. Tavares’ comments as “a pleasant surprise.”

“We’re pleased that Ms. Tavares has the fortitude to stand up to Mr. Fisher and his willingness to exclude people from the election process,” said campaign spokesman Brett Buerck.

Fisher, Taft attack each other’s records in new ads

By James Drew and Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — It’s official. A month before election day, the governor’s race is getting ugly.

Last night, the campaigns of Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican Bob Taft began television ads that attack each other’s records and use unflattering images to hammer home the point.

The flashpoint is the $1.1 billion, two-year property-tax cut that Mr. Fisher proposed Tuesday.

In his 30-second ad, Mr. Fisher appears in a blue sweater, talking amiably with citizens on a middle-class neighborhood street, as two narrators refer to the tax-cut proposal.

Mr. Taft then appears, looking like a silent-movie villain, swallowed by veils of blackness, with the light of his face flickering as he speaks in slow motion.

The narrators, calling him “Robert Taft the Second” and not the more familiar Bob he prefers, criticize Mr. Taft for opposing the tax cut and bring up the story that first hurt him eight years ago.

In 1990, when Mr. Taft sought the GOP nomination for governor, newspapers reported that the property tax rate in Hamilton County had increased 46.5 per cent since he was elected county commissioner in 1980. At the time, Hamilton had the highest property tax rate of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The Fisher ad repeats the charge and adds that county spending increased by 92 per cent over the same period.

“Robert Taft the Second … simply out of touch with Ohio.”

Brian Hicks, Mr. Taft’s campaign manager, said Mr. Taft voted as a county commissioner to put tax increases on the ballot, and he voted for some and opposed others.

The Taft ad is the second to criticize Mr. Fisher’s record.

As Mr. Fisher is shown clapping in a grainy black-and-white film clip run in slow motion, the narrator says: “Remember Lee Fisher? The legislator whose deciding vote passed the largest income-tax increase in Ohio history? The 90 per cent surcharge. He voted for 27 separate tax increases.”

The commercial then shows a television with an image from Mr. Fisher’s ad that began to air Tues day, in which he touts his proposed tax cut and drops a penny into a piggy bank.

The narrator of the Taft ad says: “But Fisher’s tax scheme is really a tax trick, leading to another huge tax increase. And you can take that to the bank.” The piggy bank then breaks in half.

Mr. Hicks asserted that Mr. Fisher has made $486 million in campaign promises, compared with Mr. Taft’s package, which would cost about $150 million. He said Mr. Fisher’s plan would lead to a state budget deficit, hence the predictions that it would trigger a tax hike, since the state by law can’t show a deficit.

Mr. Fisher has said the state can afford the tax cut and boost funding on K-12 education, and he has used projections by the state budget office to buttress his argument.

Alan Melamed, Mr. Fisher’s campaign chairman, said Mr. Taft’s ad is a “scare tactic.”

“They know that voters want to have those dollars in their pockets, and they are afraid they missed the boat,” he said.

Mr. Melamed said Mr. Fisher is challenging Mr. Taft to debate the tax-cut idea.

“If he won’t do that, he ought to shut up,” Mr. Melamed said.

Mr. Taft has called the proposal “intellectually dishonest” and the “height of irresponsibility.”

Mr. Hicks said the Taft campaign is filing an elections complaint against Mr. Fisher, claiming that a Fisher campaign flyer falsely states that Mr. Taft won’t “hold insurance companies accountable for their actions.” Mr. Fisher’s aides defended the statement as true.