The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 30, 2012

ACLU seeks probe of Conneaut prison

Recent death sparks request for investigation into problems

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Citing a recent history of problems, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is calling for a state investigation of the privately owned Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut.

The ACLU, in a statement, has called upon the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the Ohio State Highway Patrol to “fully investigate a series of troubling reports emanating from (the prison).”

The statement was issued just a few days after 59-year-old Michael Nelson, an inmate from Lake County, was found dead Saturday morning in his bunk. A toxicology test will be conducted to pinpoint the nature of the death, but a coroner’s investigator said this week a drug overdose is a “possible” cause.

“This facility was audited in September and dozens of safety, health and security issues were found,” Mike Brickner, ACLU director of communications and public policy, said in the statement. “Now an inmate is dead. Clearly, there are systemic problems within this facility and they need to be addressed.”

In September, the ODRC conducted its first audit of the prison since it was acquired by CCA. The inspection found nearly 50 sanitary, record-keeping, training and internal security issues. A re-inspection conducted by the state a few weeks ago found nearly all problems had been corrected or were in the process of being fixed.

In its statement, the ACLU said it is critical of privately owned prisons.

“Running a safe, secure prison with proper medical care takes resources,” Brickner said in the statement. “The private prison model is built on profit above all else, meaning they will cut corners to maximize profits. Unfortunately, when medical care and safety protections are cut, tragedy often occurs. While safety violations may happen at any facility, private prisons are often less equipped to properly handle them and ensure they do not happen again.”

On Thursday, Brickner — in a phone conversation — said the state had not yet responded to the ACLU’s call for action. The OHP is already investigating the inmate’s death and Brickner is hoping the probe will expand “more broadly.”

“The ACLU will continue to monitor these issues” to safeguard inmates, prison employees and the community, he said.

Earlier this week, CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company works hard to clamp down on drugs and other contraband in its prisons. In a statement issued Thursday, Owen also disputed UCLA’s claims regarding private prisons.

“The ACLU continues to play politics with unfounded opinions, refusing to acknowledge the extensive evidence of partnership prisons’ positive contributions,” Owen said in the statement. “The simple truth is that CCA provides safe, affordable and dependable solutions to governments that face the very real and practical challenges of growing inmate populations, overcrowding, high recidivism rates and increasing budget pressures.”

ODNR officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

The CCA obtained the prison at the start of the 2012. It is the first state-built prison ever sold to a private security company. The LaECI houses an estimated 1,800 minimum- and medium-security inmates.