The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 14, 2013

Conneaut prison officials promise a better 2013

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Officials with Corrections Corporation of America on Wednesday night acknowledged a bumpy start to its ownership of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, but promises big improvements in the coming months.

"The first year (of transition) is always rough," said Daren Swenson, CCA's vice-president of facility operations told Conneaut City Council. “We know there are things we can do better in 2013. We will see significant changes in 2013.”

Several CCA executives, along with a representative of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and local law enforcement, were guests at a meeting of council's public safety committee. The meeting comes on the heels of a surge of contraband-smuggling cases and other issues in recent weeks that have alarmed council and the city's state lawmakers.

CCA assured city officials they are aware of the worries and are taking serious steps in response.

Warden Barry Goodrich said LaECI is in the process of upgrading its camera surveillance system, enhanced its employee training, stepped up drills regarding perimeter security and has bolstered its "intelligence-gathering" within the prison.

"Our training meets or exceeds state and industry standards," he said.

In late December and early January, nearly a half-dozen people were arrested within the span of a few days for trying to toss cellular telephones, tobacco and other prohibited items over a section of the prison's north fence.

Goodrich said he was pleased to see the arrests, crediting the "high success rate" to the prison's law enforcement partners and vigilant neighbors.

"It reflects on the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the Conneaut Police Department and the community," he said. "I've been (in corrections work) in six states and I've never seen better results."

Todd Ishee, ODRC's northeast regional director, said the over-the-fence smuggling technique is a "conveyance method that has emerged within the last five years."

"It's not unique to Conneaut, Ohio," Ishee said.

However, Conneaut has logged more arrests regarding those types of incidents than other sites, he said.

CCA took possession of the prison in January 2012, eventually adding 300 beds. On average, the prison houses 1,774 inmates. LaECI employs 275 people, most of them corrections officers.

In September, the ODRC's first audit of the privately-owned prison revealed dozens of deficiencies in several areas, including internal security, sanitation, training and document-handling. A follow-up inspection a few weeks later showed nearly all the problems had been corrected or were being fixed.

"(The September audit) was a very good learning experience for us," Goodrich said. "We learned how Ohio does its audits."

Prompted by council's concerns, a surprise inspection of the prison was conducted by a five-member team on Jan. 22-23. While the team's report is still being written, State Rep. John Patterson last week said it revealed some deficiencies.

Councilman-at-large Neil LaRusch asked about the number of felony-level incidents investigated by the OHP since CCA took control. Cases dropped in 2012, said Lt. Jerad Sutton, of the Ashtabula County post.

LaRusch also questioned CCA officials about its attempts to find ways to reduce the property taxes it pays. Presently, CCA pays more than $1 million annually through its ownership of LaECI.

Steven Owen, the company's marketing director, said CCA owns more than 40 prisons that comprise considerable acreage. Any corporation action pertaining to real estate "makes more sense when you recognize the significant property we own," he said.

Owen later said CCA is "proud" of the tax support its provides locals schools and local government.

LaECI is making strides in its education programs for inmates, has exceeded the goal it set for prisons that receive high school equivalency diplomas and strives to be active in the community, Goodrich said.

Council members stressed they were happy to have CCA in the community, but would appreciate the prison being more communicative.. High-profile events at the prison have made residents nervous, and council have been peppered with questions it cannot adequately answer, members said.

"We definitely will work with you," said Council President Thomas Udell. "There were concerns, and now we know they've been addressed."

Ward 1 Councilman Doug Hedrick, whose ward includes the prison, praised CCA for "recognizing the need for good community relations."

Some of Hedrick's constituents, "quite frankly, were frightened," he said.