Legislators vent anger over break at prison; Warden tells of errors that permitted escape firm’s official is ‘very, very sorry’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The men and women who run Youngstown’s private prison said they are “very, very sorry” about last month’s escape of five murderers, but they still got quite a talking-to by Ohio legislators yesterday.

“You are very fortunate that none of these men killed anybody, because they’ve shown they will,” said Sen. Jeffrey Johnson (D., Cleveland).

The apology and anger occurred at a hearing of the General Assembly’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, which is investigating the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. That private prison, Ohio’s first, has been rocked by two inmate murders, several stabbings, and the July 25 escape of six convicted felons, five of them killers.

“This has created a great deal of trauma in the state, and we are very, very sorry for that,” said J. Michael Quinlan, director of planning for by Corrections Corp. of America, the company that owns and operates the center.

Throughout their testimony, Mr. Quinlan and other corporation officials were repeatedly advised by a company attorney not to reveal too much about what happened on the day of the escape. But the center’s warden, Jimmy Turner, did reveal several staff errors that he said contributed to the escape’s success.

Staff members patrolling the prison perimeter did not immediately respond when alarms at the fence line started going off around 2:30 p.m. that day, when the prisoners were allegedly cutting through the wire, he said. And an officer in charge of watching over a prison recreation yard left his post to use the bathroom just before the escape, leaving a large area of the yard unsupervised, he said.

Human errors like those were responsible for the escape, Mr. Turner said. “The policies and procedures were in place. The decisions made were wrong.”

The warden said that one of the upgrades being made in the prison’s security system involves the fence alarms, which in the past have gone off even when an escape was not being attempted. He did not say if those previous false alarms had anything to do with the lack of a staff response on July 25.

Four of the men who escaped were in the center on murder convictions; a fifth was in for assault, but he has been convicted of murder. Those five men have all been captured and are in the custody of U.S. marshals. The sixth remains at large, and officials believe he may have fled to Canada.

The prison gets all of its inmates from the Washington, D.C., court system.

Members of the legislative committee, which is bipartisan and includes House and Senate members, spent much of the afternoon debating what options the state has to tighten security or shut the center.

After negotiations with the city of Youngstown, the corporation has agreed to remove all maximum and high-medium-security prisoners from the center, leaving only medium and minimum-security inmates. But the six escapees, including the killers, were all medium-security, several members pointed out.

Mr. Johnson said the lack of oversight the state has over the center and the fact that the company is not revealing some information about the escape show the flaw in converting a public prison to private business.

“The difference in a public prison is that if a manager lets six felons out in broad daylight, we can do something to get that person out,” Mr. Johnson said. “We can’t do that with [CCA].”

The corporation’s attorney, Timothy Bojanowski, responded by saying the company’s silence comes at the request of federal officials, who are investigating if a prison staff member helped in the escape.

“We don’t want to do anything to impede this investigation at all,” he said. Mr. Quinlan said the possibility of inside help at the prison “is not an excuse,” although he and other corporation employees mentioned it several times throughout their testimony as a mitigating factor.

The committee is to meet in Youngstown sometime later this month to hold a public hearing on the prison.