The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 7, 2013

Surprise Conneaut prison inspection shows problems

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — A surprise state inspection of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution revealed “multiple deficiencies,” State Rep. John Patterson said Tuesday night.

Speaking at a Conneaut Area Chamber of Commerce function, Patterson said the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections performed a “spontaneous,” two-day inspection of the prison late last month. The examiners’ report has not been finalized, Patterson said, but he understood inspectors found “multiple deficiencies.”

Patterson told the crowd he could not elaborate, but said the state’s report will be public record. An ODRC spokesman confirmed Wednesday a report on the inspection was not complete.

The inspection began Jan. 22 and concluded one day later, Patterson said. Warden Barry Goodrich was told examiners were on the way one hour before they arrived, Patterson.

“It was a surprise,” he said.

Prompting the probe was a rash of reports of people attempting to throw contraband — including cellular telephones, tobacco, drugs and alcohol — over the prison fence to inmates. Conneaut police have been besieged with calls about perimeter security, resulting in stepped-up patrols. Police Chief Charles Burlingham has said the prison initiative has compromised patrols in other parts of town.

City Council members have also weighed in, asking the state for help regarding the prison.

Security concerns at the privately-owned prison dominated Patterson’s time, he said Tuesday. “It’s consumed a vast amount of time since taking office (last month),” Patterson said.

The city, ODRC and Corrections Corporation of American — which purchased the prison in January 2012 — are in a “marriage” where “transparency, trust and accountability” are important, Patterson said. CCA is making changes in policy and security, he said.

The January inspection would be the prison’s fourth in a little more than four months. LaECI received its first state inspection in September, and examiners found dozens of deficiencies in a number of areas, including internal security, sanitation, training and document-handling. A re-inspection conducted a few weeks later showed the prison had corrected, or was in the process of correcting, nearly all of the problems.

Later, a team from the American Corrections Association studied the prison and wound up giving the 1,800-inmate facility an excellent score.

In other remarks, Patterson said city administrators’ interest in consolidating Conneaut Municipal Court with another court to save money will require lots of study.

“A long list of questions must be answered,” he said. “We need to get into the details of the municipal court issue.”

Recently, City Council authorized a request to the Ohio Supreme Court for an analysis into the feasibility of maintaining a local court. The cash-strapped city’s general fund annually pays the shortfall that results from the court’s operation.

Patterson also said he is opposed to the state’s plan to shut down the tourist information office inside the rest area/truck scales at Interstate 90. “I like to see people at our tourist center,” he said.

Thanks to the work of local, county and state officials, Conneaut is on the verge of an economic breakthrough, Patterson said.

“I believe we stand on the precipice of great change,” he said. “There is a new energy in Conneaut.”