Prisons Director Answers Critics On Concerns About Privatization

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Delaware County Jail and Sheriff's Residence(Photo: OZinOH (flickr))
Delaware County Jail and Sheriff's Residence(Photo: OZinOH (flickr))

Sentencing reform has been long discussed as a way to a goal of reducing the number of people in prison. But if there are fewer people behind bars in the five prisons the state hopes to privatize, that could mean less money for the private companies the state hopes will pay to operate those lockups.

State prisons director Gary Mohr says privatizing prisons and sentencing reform aren’t necessarily at cross-purposes, but the state will carefully watch the two-year deals deals that private prison operators will sign to make sure.

“As we look at these two-year increments, we will be taking a look at what our population starts to do and what we need to do. We need to get out of some of the density that we have. We hope the prison population goes down and our density decreases anyway,” Mohr said.

Mohr says prison operators will have to operate prisons the way the state does – every policy, every position, even the menus will be the same.

Mike Brickner with the American Civil Liberties Union says he’s happy to hear that prison sentencing reform – which the ACLU supports – has been folded into the budget. But Brickner says his concerns about private operators and reforms remain.

“It’s very difficult to implement effective sentencing reform and giving that hope when you have a company that is going to be running the facilities – they’re going to be holding all the low-level people, the people that you want out of prison – who has an interest in keeping them in prison,” Brickner said.

Industries that work with the state often end up with powerful lobbyists – those who advocate for nursing homes are often cited as an example. And critics say private prison operators could end up with a lot of lobbying might as well. But Mohr says those lobbyists won’t change the way Ohio’s prisons are run.

“The first cabinet meeting, the governor said, There’s no politics.’ And that’s why I’m in this role is because I believe that and we are not going to let that happen. Our private prisons are going to operate just like Ohio prisons and that’s as long as I’m director. When that ever changes, I will not be the director, I will tell you that right now, because we have that responsibility,” Mohr said.

But Brickner says there are lobbyists working at all levels of state government, so he doubts that private prison operators will be the exception.

“I think that that’s a hard promise to make. I think with anything, when there’s money involved, there’s always going to be some sort of maneuvering going on to – the private company’s prerogative is to maximize that as much as possible,” Brickner said.

The group Policy Matters Ohio has also raised questions about the possible savings of privatizing prisons. Its report says the state’s calculations of how much it’s saved in the 10 years since private operators started working in Ohio in aren’t reliable or accurate, and it’s impossible to say if the state has saved any money with privatization. Mohr says he thinks the state is saving as much as 9 percent – but he isn’t sure about the numbers himself, and has asked the office of budget and management to run new comparisons.

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