The Newest Population in Conneaut: Private Prison

Yolanda Perdomo- In Conneaut Ohio, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, railroad lines are on the north side of the prison facility. The complex is separated from the tracks by six strands of razor wire....on two high fences. Lake Erie Correctional officials won't describe their alarm systems, citing security reasons. But this place looks more like an army barracks than a prison. Inside, ivory cement walls house rows of beige metal bunk beds...with each inmate getting a trunk to keep his belongings in. A beige secured chain linked fence keeps more than one hundred at a time confined in these quarters. Captain Anthony Court is spending opening day at the prison giving tours to state dignitaries and others.

Captain Anthony Court- These are direct pressure cells in case we get an inmate with tuberculosis, we'll put him in this cell or another communicable disease that's airborne. Put them in these cells, the airflow is coming out, goes under and outside.

YP- The state of Ohio spent 39 million dollars to build the facility. But the Management And Training Corporation is running the operation. Neil Turner, a deputy warden says the company can run the prison for 12 percent less than it would cost the state.

Neil Turner- We are going to employ 269 employees when we are full. 90% of our employees came from Ashtabula county and approximately 40% came from the Conneaut area. It's a huge boosting economy. When you have payroll and operating budget of 19 million dollars. You put a lot of money in the economy.

YP- Many comparisons are being made between this facility and the private prison in Youngstown, run by another company. In 1998, the Youngstown prison was the place where two inmates were killed and six others escaped. Those incidents gave the prison a reputation for being problematic. In part because of the practice of mixing prisoners of different security levels. Turner says that the prison population of the Conneaut facility will be much different.

NT- It's all types of crimes, violent, non-violent...drug related crimes. Robbery, forgery, anywhere where you are trying to get money to pay for a drug habit. About 90% of our inmates who are in today are in because of drug related crimes - not necessarily because they were caught drug trafficking - but because they were supporting a habit. It could be anything.

YP- But that includes assault and murder. Conneaut resident Martin Knowels says the townspeople were told that inmates committing those types of crimes would not be part of this prison's population. He doesn't have a problem with the prison per say. But says he was disappointed that more locals weren't hired to work inside the prison.

Martin Knowels- They told us when they put it in here that they would have employees from the city, like your average people. So far, there's been nothing but people from city hall, like police officers. But the local people, no. About half way through the town here they are selling their homes, because they are afraid of the prison. And because of the sewer they are putting here, it's costing too much money for the land owners.

YP- For Jim Kennedy, it's not safety... but financial concerns that upset him when he thinks about the prison. Kennedy says because of the prison, he's going to be paying close to $3000 in property taxes each year for the foreseeable future.

Jim Kennedy- The city itself is trying to shove the sewer down our throats. We have a city charter that said originally that we weren't supposed to have to comply to the city of Conneat's wishes to get a sewer put in. They are giving the free services in there. We paid for the sewer system over here.

YP- The cost factor is also an issue with Peter Ray. Ray's with the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, a union representing more than 10 thousand medical, administrative, food service, and correctional workers across the state. He says aside from possible problems, like that of the Youngstown facility, there's no proof that private prisons are run better than state institutions.

Peter Ray- The private prison industry, although this version of it has been in existence for about the last 15-20 years, they have not been able to come up with one independent study, not one I emphasize, that shows that they do any better of a job than the publicly operated prisons. We do a great job, and to suggest that somebody on the outside, who's only way they are going to make money is by cutting back on personnel, is an insult.

YP- While the controversy over how state run facilities compare with privately run prisons continues...the residents of Conneaut are bracing for a different kind of population boom. It's expected that all the 1,380 beds at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution will be occupied by mid July. In Conneaut, Yolanda Perdomo, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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