Ohio Inmates Cope with Overcrowding

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A view inside one of the general population dorms. 141 inmates live in this dorm.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
A view inside one of the general population dorms. 141 inmates live in this dorm.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

Ohio prisons are overcrowded, more than 130 percent above capacity. And prisoner to guard ratios are the highest among any of Ohio’s neighboring states. But, numbers fail to accurately reflect day-to-day operations at a state prison. WOSU recently traveled to a medium security prison in Chillicothe for this look behind prison doors.

Ohio’s inmate to guard ratio has been steadily increasing along with the state’s inmate population. And that means corrections officers have more prisoners to keep tabs on.

On average there are seven inmates to every one Ohio Prison guard. That means Ohio has the highest inmate to correction officer ratio of any of its neighboring states.

The ratios range from Kentucky which has 6.7 inmates for every guard to West Virginia which has fewer than five inmates for every guard.

But again, that’s the average ratio. There are times when guards have to oversee many more inmates.

Sally Meckling speaks for the union that represents Ohio’s corrections officers.

“We’ve got one or two C.O.s that watch over 250 to 500 inmates at a time,” Meckling said.

Ohio’s prison director Terry Collins was asked if this really happens – if one corrections officer is responsible for looking after 200 or more inmates at a time. And Collins said, yes, it happens – everyday – mostly at lower level facilities.

“You don’t typically need as much security with those type(s) of charges. Now that’s not to say that the lowest level offender I have can’t be a problem at some particular point in time. There’s no way that I can staff every cell block and every dormitory to keep a defined ratio 24-hours a day unless somebody’s got lots of money,” Collins said.

The problem is not all the guards are on duty at the same time. There are four shifts to cover.

“This is a normal dormitory. It’s got three levels.”

That’s Robin Knab. She’s the warden at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution. It’s about two in the afternoon – second shift. Two or three corrections officers stand nearby and there’s a case manager at a desk in the center of the long room. Some inmates gather around a bunk bed talking.

“How many men are housed in here? Uh…let’s see the board. 141. And this is how many floors? Three. Three floors. So, 141 divided by three… Well, this is 141 down here. Oh! This is 141 down here. On this floor? On this floor. Just in this area? Yes,” Knab answered.

The dormitory is a decent size room, but it seems much, much smaller with all the beds squeezed in. Bunk beds are arranged in three rows and fill the room. There’s maybe three feet between each bed. It’s about 70 degrees outside on this day but it’s warm in the dorm.

Inmate Clarence Dobbins sits on his bed. He looks older than his 45 years. Dobbins has put in about two years of a 12 year sentence for multiple crimes.

“It’s just odd because I mean you’re bumping into people at all time in here. And with the restrooms the way they are, you know, there ain’t much room, so. It’s just tight. That’s about all there is to say. It’s just tight in here,” Dobbins said.

Near him is Jason Harlow. He arrived in December. He’ll get out in July. Harlow seemed a little more strained about the living situation.

“It’s real stressful. I mean, it’s just, I don’t know, it gets hot and aggravating and stuff. You know what I mean?”

There has been tension lately at some of the state’s prisons. Earlier this month, several inmates were sent to the hospital after a fight broke out at Noble Correctional Institute, south of Columbus. And in March several fights erupted at the Mansfield facility.

Unit manager John Freeman has worked at the Chillicothe prison for about 13 years. Freeman has seen the prison go from single cell units to the way it is today with large dorms.

“It puts a lot of pressure on a can that’s already bulging just a little bit. So we’re just trying to keep the lid on it,” Freeman said.

But Warden Knab said the climate at Chillicothe, which is a medium security prison, is pretty good. She credits the layout of the facility and its vast outdoor space where inmates can spend a good bit of their day if they choose.

“With the open compound and the recreation yard they have they’re able to get out of the dorm, they’re able to go out and exercise, they’re able to move around so you don’t get that…I guess there’s a way to get away from that tight fit,” Knab said.

The corrections officers union has warned the overcrowding could lead to riots. But Knab said she is confident her facility’s C.O.s can do their jobs effectively. She said they are trained for various situations and the communication between each other and the inmates is good. State prison director Terry Collins said the answer to the inmate to guard ratio is sentencing reform – not to hire more officers and not to spend a billion dollars to build more prisons. He wants non-violent offenders treated in community programs instead of sentenced to prison. But sentencing reform did not make it through the Ohio House’s version of the budget.

This means, at some point, Collins may have to refer to his “plan b”: a state law that lets him declare a crowding emergency and release inmates. He said he does not favor this because it’s only a temporary solution. At what point will Collins proclaim a crowding emergency? He’s not sure.

“I can tell you this I’m quickly running out of space. I’ve already got everything doubled that I can about double. So I’m getting to the point where I’m running out of space,” Collins said.

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