Two prisons by BillyV on Flickr

Will Ohio build a $1 billion facility, sign contracts with for-profit prison companies or release prisoners? (photo via Two prisons by BillyV on Flickr)

As prisoners, advocates and journalists warned of deteriorating conditions in Ohio’s prisons over the past year, the inmate population slowly crept back up to around 30% over capacity.

During that time, prisoners in the Buckeye State were fed spoiled, inedible meals by the food contractor Aramark, sometimes tainted with maggots. They also suffered abuse and abysmal conditions at private prisons operated by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), bad enough to inspire a 14-hour peaceful protest. Have the events of this past year finally generated enough misery and public scrutiny to pressure Ohio officials to act?

Without the funding to add more beds to the prison system, Ohio Prison Director Gary Mohr was initially considering reducing the inmate population through ’emergency early release.’ According to the law, Mohr could declare an overcrowding emergency, recommending some nonviolent prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences for early release. This declaration must be approved by Ohio’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC), which includes members of the state legislature and oversees prisons in the state. If the CIIC disagrees with or ignores the declaration, it is sent to the Governor for a final decision.

Mohr had asked the state assembly to make some ‘changes‘ to the early release law, but declined to specify exactly what those changes would entail. The law is just shy of 20 years old and has never been used before. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be used any time soon, either: the Coshocton Tribune reports that Mohr is now saying early release is “not going to happen.”

It’s not hard to understand why that may be. Several state politicians — including some members of the CIIC — stepped forward to voice their support for CCA after they lost their contract to house over 1,400 federal prisoners at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC). Some even vowed to help CCA find a new client to fill the empty beds. Governor John Kasich, on the other hand, signed sentencing reforms into law in 2011 that afforded some prisoners’ early release, but he is also the ‘mastermind’ (if you can call him that) and chief defender of the state’s privatization schemes.

And wouldn’t you know, with early release freshly off the table, Mohr is now said to be considering private contracts. Mohr said he hasn’t talked to CCA, but that he has been approached by legislators in support of such a contract.

I wonder if any of the legislators that approached him were on the CIIC, or have received donations from CCA? Or if the “changes” Mohr wanted were an attempt to bypass or make concessions to the Governor and/or CIIC?

In any case, should the state decide against furthering its commitment to privatization, there’s also talk of building a whole new prison that would cost taxpayers $1 billion to build and operate for two years. This is by far the worst thing Ohio could do. Not only would it be a colossal waste of money, but it would do nothing to address the state’s rising prison population.

Mohr’s final option, which he says he supports and which would most likely be the best of them all, would be to invest resources in community justice solutions and alternatives to incarceration, stemming the flow of people into Ohio’s prisons. While this is an incredibly vague proposal, it would at least open a space for advocates to fight for the right programs for their communities.

In reality, such investment would likely target the “safe” class of non-violent, low-level offenders, but it could be considered a starting point for expanding to other prisoners as well. The line needs to be drawn somewhere before a decision is made, and that somewhere should be at policies that replace the prison system, not entrench or tinker with it.

Either way, Mohr said he is “reactivating beds” as a temporary measure. A new budget is expected to come out later this year, and it’s unclear if or how the legislature will attempt to address overcrowding with funding. But Mohr has warned that a 10% cut in funding would mean closing 5 prisons, and without a commensurate strategy for decarceration, he would have nowhere to put all the prisoners. This could force action for better or for worse, but it also ups the stakes in a way that make funding cuts unlikely; I can’t imagine too many politicians from anywhere voting to close 5 prisons, which would entail releasing prisoners and axing jobs (and taking on the officer’s union in the process). That doesn’t mean advocates shouldn’t be pushing for such closures, but they will face significant challenges in doing so and will need to shape the debate accordingly.

This is an important moment for the prisoners’ rights and prison abolition movements. Ohio is entering a critical decision point that could either result in a reduction of prison populations and the closure of facilities, or an increase in the state’s dependency on prisons. Or it could be some miserable preservation of the status quo. The superior choice, however, is clear: Ohio’s only way out of its prison problems is to end that dependency and explore other justice solutions.

There is no better place to invest resources liberated from Ohio’s prison system than in the communities that suffered from that system the most.

Creative Commons Photo via BillyV on Flickr.

Crossposted from Prison Protest. Follow Brian Sonenstein on Twitter.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.