The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 22, 2013

Contagallo says prison program in Conneaut would give businesses good workers

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Ashtabula County manufacturers desperate for dependable, drug-free employees may find the workforce they crave inside the privately-owned prison in Conneaut, officials heard Wednesday night.

At a special City Council meeting, four of the seven members heard some details about a proposed development that would give eligible inmates at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution the opportunity to learn — and maybe land — a job while serving their sentence. No decisions were made Wednesday, although council members in attendance said they want to know more about the program, which would be a first for Ohio.

Anthony Cantagallo, former Ashtabula city manager, provided details of the concept first announced in broad terms a few weeks ago. He is proposing the construction of a building on 8.9 acres he owns along East Main Road (Route 20) a short distance west of Thompson Road. The location is basically at the doorstep of the prison.

Inmates who pass muster would have the opportunity to work for one of several county businesses that would establish satellite operations inside the building. The inmates would receive the same wage given a civilian doing the same work, although a portion of their pay would be claimed by the state to help cover the cost of their incarceration. The balance, aside from a few dollars for "walking around money," could be held in a special fund and given the inmate upon his release, Cantagallo said.

The city of Conneaut, meanwhile, would collect property and municipal income tax from the endeavor, council learned.

Joining Cantagallo at the meeting was State Rep. John Patterson; representatives from LaECI, including Warden Brigham Sloan; and Will Golar with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who monitors the contract the state has with Corrections Corporation of America, the owner of the prison.

Cantagallo said the proposal addresses two glaring needs: the state's desire to keep inmates from returning to prison and a demand for dedicated workers among area businesses. A survey of dozens of companies in Ashtabula County shows they are hindered by a lack of people who can pass a drug test and possess a suitable work ethic, he said. As a result, the ability of business to expand and diversify suffers, Cantagallo said.

"Businesses here can't contract to make something if they don't have people to make it," he said. "Companies have a need, and the prison has a solution to that need."

Because of the paucity of quality workers, there should be no worry that inmates would take jobs from civilians, Cantagallo said. "If people want a job they could have it, and they're not knocking down the door," he said.

Inmates enrolled in the job training program would be screened for their suitability, Cantagallo said. They would be bussed the short distance to the center in the morning, stay on the grounds for lunch and then return to the prison after their shift, he said.

Security would match what's found at the prison and would be provided by "the people who own the building," Cantagallo said.

While the dimensions of the building still need to be computed, the structure would be designed by a local firm, have a heated concrete floor and solar electric panels on the roof, Cantagallo said. The interior walls could be movable to give added flexibility, he said.

The developers would foot the bill for the construction and no public money would be involved, Cantagallo said.

He envisioned the center employing upwards of 60 people at the start, growing to between 100 and 150 at full production. The inmates would be managed by employees from the participating companies, possibly workers chosen to become instructors.

Council learned similar enterprises can be found at locations around the country. "What has been proposed is being done and can be done," Sloan said.

Sloan doubted enough qualified inmates are presently at LaECI, but said the state could transfer inmates who meet the criteria to Conneaut from other prisons.

Cantagallo said he got the idea for the job training center last summer. The idea has been embraced by businesses, he said. The ODRC is also intrigued.

"The department is open (to the idea) in a positive way," Golar said.

Plenty of discussion lie ahead before the concepts becomes a reality. Many components of the plan, such as the salary structure, would need to be set by the state, since Columbus oversees all training programs for its inmates (LaECI houses state inmates). The idea won't move another step, however, if the city of Conneaut objects.

"All parties shoud be on board," Patterson said.