The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 4, 2012

Prison crime is Conneaut's problem - for now

State surprised, police disappointed at development

Staff Writer

CONNEAUT — Despite Columbus’ promises to the contrary, the city began the new year as the chief investigator of serious crimes that occur inside the now privately owned Lake Erie Correctional Institution, officials said Tuesday.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office has informed city officials that it opposes the use of Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers to investigate felony-level crimes that occur within the prison, and won’t budge on that position until state statutes are changed, Law Director David Schroeder said at Tuesday night’s City Council work session.

As a result, serious prison crime will be handled by the Conneaut Police Department or the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department — and the city is first in line.

The notice flies against assurances given late last month by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and Gov. John Kasich’s office that the OHP will remain on the job regarding prison investigations. Troopers, which routinely investigate all crimes that occur on state-owned property, have had that role at the LaECI since it opened nearly 12 years ago.

Over the past few weeks, a memorandum of understanding regarding the OHP’s role inside the private prison had been drafted and shared with city officials. The attorney general’s office first indicated concerns with the plan last week — a few days before the transfer was scheduled to take place. A final position statement on the matter arrived Tuesday, council learned.

Schroeder said the problems stem from liability worries — the attorney general’s office isn’t sure how it could defend troopers who find themselves in a legal fix investigating cases inside a private business.

The state is not willing to change until laws change allowing the OHP to enter the LaECI. State lawmakers have said legislation authorizing such a move is under way.

In the meantime, though, Conneaut police will answer calls at the prison when requested by in-house peacekeepers. As of Tuesday afternoon, almost three days after the transfer, no requests have come from LaECI, said Police Chief Charles Burlingham.

 In a pre-emptive strike, a second investigator was added to the detective bureau a few weeks ago on the off-chance the deal fell through.

I had a feeling something was going to happen,” Burlingham said.

Council met in executive session for more than 30 minutes at the start of the work session. The topic was pending litigation, and it appears to have dealt with the city’s legal options regarding the matter.

After emerging, Schroeder said the city possesses a 1997 development agreement with the state regarding the prison project which states the prison shall remain the sole ownership of the state of Ohio. He indicated the agreement gives the city some “legal recourse” in the sale. The city, based on the agreement, spent more than $500,000 in the late 1990s to secure land for the prison and install the necessary infrastructure, officials have said.

“We will do the right thing (for the community),” Schroeder said. “We have an obligation to do what’s necessary to protect (the community).”

City officials are worried the police department, already lacking officers, will be stretched too thin by the prison duty. In 2010, the OHP handled 125 cases within the prison, more than one every three days, officials have said.

Council made it very clear the sticking point isn’t with CCA. The Nashville-based company will pay more than $1 million annually in property taxes, and instantly becomes one of the city’s largest employers. The prison is also the largest consumer of city-provided water.

“There are no hard feelings with CCA,” said Council President Thomas Udell. “This has to do with the city and the state of Ohio.”

Councilman-at-large Neil LaRusch, who arranged the Dec. 2 meeting in Columbus with the governor, said he is confident promises made by state leaders in recent weeks regarding prison will be kept. “I’m 100 percent optimistic those individuals will keep their word,” he said.

The prison became a private security business on New Year’s Eve. CCA purchased LaECI for $72.7 million for the facility. It plans to house upwards of 1,700 state prisoners in exchange for per diem payments as well as an annual $3.8 million ownership fee from the state.

ODRC officials were surprised to learn of a hitch in the plan.

“We don’t expect it to change from (the OHP),” said Carlo LoParo, ODRC communications chief, said Tuesday. “It’s not an issue from our standpoint.”