CONNEAUT — A Conneaut councilman has asked state officials to help relieve the Conneaut Police Department of perimeter patrol duties at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution.
Councilman-at-Large Neil LaRusch, in a letter sent to Gov. John Kasich’s northeast Ohio liaison, said he was alarmed by a recent increase in attempts to smuggle contraband into the privately owned prison. The crimes have prompted city police to shoulder more prison security work than anticipated when the state prison was sold to Corrections Corporation of America one year ago, he said.
“With the city of Conneaut Police Department already financially strapped and below what I would consider to be acceptable levels, what assistance can the state lend us to deal with this situation?” LaRusch wrote. “The city is not financially in a position to add more officers to deal with this private prison. With this situation getting out of hand at this pace, what can the governor propose to assure the safety and security of the citizens of Conneaut?”
At issue is a rash of attempts to throw drugs, tobacco and other prohibited items over the prison’s north fence. Since the end of 2012, four people have already been arrested and charged with the offense. Another four were arrested this week on unrelated charges but police suspect they came to town for a prison smuggling job.
LaRusch said the issue of perimeter patrols was discussed and resolved in 2011, when the city police department feared it would have to investigate felony-level crimes that occur at the prison once it became private property. The Ohio State HIghway Patrol handles that task, just as it does at state-owned prisons.
“In the past, (perimeter patrol has been) done by the (OHP), as well as the city of Conneaut police department,” LaRusch wrote. “It seems recently (almost exclusively since the sale to CCA) there has been a drastic rise in criminal activity around the site and an equal drop in the presence of the OHP.”
Copies of the letter were sent to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, CCA officials, Ashtabula County commissioners, State Rep. John Patterson and State Sen. Capri Cafaro.
Conneaut Police Chief Charles Burlingham agreed his officers have devoted an inordinate amount of time recently to prison-related calls.
“For several months we’ve received complaints,” he said. “We have a lot of extra patrols over there.”
Police have been making arrests because people living near the prison have been reporting suspicious activity, Burlingham said.
“Neighbors are more observant,” he said. “They’re giving us a heads-up.”
The people arrested have been caught near the prison’s north fence, which is accessible from a wooded area near the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, Burlingham said. “They’re throwing anything and everything over the fence,” he said.
Steven Owen, CCA’s senior director for public affairs, said the prison is “looking at enhancements to security protocol.”
Some upgrades have already been put into place which have improved awareness of the problem, Owen said.
“The new protocols have led to greater reporting (of incidents) that once had gone unreported,” he said.