State can’t shut prison, report says; Youngstown wants site to stay open

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The state of Ohio has no easy way to shut the violence-riddled private prison in Youngstown, and local officials want to see it stay open, state officials said yesterday.

“It is apparent that there is no legal action the state could pursue to immediately close the prison,” Governor Voinovich said after receiving a report from Attorney General Betty Montgomery saying the state is powerless, at least in the short term, to shut down the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center.

A hearing on the facility’s problems is scheduled for today by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, the state legislature’s nonpartisan prison research arm.

The corrections center, a private prison owned by Nashville-based Correction Corp. of America, has faced steady controversy since opening last year. Two inmates have been murdered, a number of prisoners have been stabbed, and at least three prison staff members have been assaulted.

The most recent debacle occurred July 25, when six prisoners, four of them convicted murderers, escaped by cutting through wire fencing. Five of the six have been recaptured. The prison takes prisoners from out-of-state.

Candidates in this fall’s elections, not wanting to seem insufficiently opposed to murderers running loose, have latched onto the issue, some calling for the facility to be shut down.

But the report, put together by the attorney general’s staff, said the state has “no simple approaches or clear remedies” to close the center.

State officials said such remedies were not necessary, however, because Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey doesn’t want to see the center shut down, as long as the city’s security concerns are met.

“Mayor McKelvey told me today personally that he’d prefer the prison stay open with proper negotiated safeguards,” Ms. Montgomery wrote in her report.

The city of Youngstown, having faced economic collapse in the 1980s with the demise of its steel industry, had attracted the center to northeast Ohio in 1995 for its 350 permanent jobs.

Mr. McKelvey could not be reached for comment last night.

Richard Cordray, the Democrat who is running against Ms. Montgomery for attorney general in the fall, said he was “outraged” at her report, saying it was incorrect in saying the state has no power to shut the prison.

“Betty Montgomery and I fundamentally disagree about the need for the attorney general to act aggressively to protect the public safety,” Mr. Cordray said. “The attorney general has broad power to use the nuisance law to protect the state welfare. She has a million excuses on how not to protect Ohioans.”

Mr. Cordray last week called for the state to close the center by suing it for a breach of contract, declaring it a public nuisance, and turning it into a state-owned facility.

But Ms. Montgomery’s report said that is unrealistic, as any breach of contract suit would have to be brought by the city of Youngstown, not the state. The report said that declaring the prison a nuisance would likely not stand up in court as a way to take control of the facility.

“She is wriggling to find every excuse not to do what I’ve outlined,” Mr. Cordray said.

Among the most serious complaints leveled against the corporation is that it has housed maximum-security prisoners – including murderers – after promising authorities that it would house only medium-security ones. They are brought in through a contract the corporation has with Washington to house its worst prisoners.

“What the governor needs to do is call CCA and say, `I want you to remove the murderers and rapists from Youngstown,”‘ said Steve Fought, spokesman for Democrat Mary Boyle. Ms. Boyle is running for a U.S. Senate seat this fall against Mr. Voinovich.

The campaign for Republican Bob Taft, who is running to succeed Mr. Voinovich as governor this fall, supports the incumbent’s actions, a spokesman said. “We want to see what’s best for the safety and economic viability of the community,” Brett Buerck said.

Mr. Taft’s opponent, Democrat Lee Fisher, was at a fund-raiser with Vice President Gore last night and could not be reached for comment.

In a prepared statement, corporation officials said they will review Ms. Montgomery’s report and cooperate with state and local officials.