Saturday, December 08, 2001

Cash-strapped state to close Orient prison

By Spencer Hunt and Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        ORIENT, Ohio — As he was getting ready to go to work Friday morning, Ed Haines learned his 11-year job as an Orient Correctional Institution guard would soon be over.

        “It was on TV,” a frustrated Mr. Haines said outside the employee entrance to the prison about 15 miles southwest of Columbus. “I feel like we've been let down.”

        Mr. Haines and 524 other guards and staff had heard rumors, but were officially told Friday morning Orient will become the first Ohio prison ever to shut down as a cost-saving measure.

        In mid-January, 1,747 prisoners will begin moving to new cells in the state's 11 already crowded medium-security prisons.

        Part of a sprawling complex that includes two other prisons that will stay

        open, Orient should be completely shut down by April 21. Surrounded by high chain-link fences and silver razor wire, tit has become the first visible victim of the state's budget crisis.

        The closure, called a “dramatic option” by Ohio Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Reggie Wilkinson, likely means the loss of hundreds of jobs, although he does not yet have an exact figure.

        Veteran Orient employees expect to land similar jobs at other prisons. But that means bumping junior employees who now hold those positions.

        “We've been here forever, a lot of us, and now we have to start over,” said Jeff Lewis, who has spent 13 years at the prison working as a vocational plumbing instructor. “I don't know where they're going to send us.”

        Mr. Lewis said he really doesn't like the idea of taking someone else's job. He also questioned the timing of the announcement.

        “It's the holidays,” he said.

        The shutdown is one result of spending cuts Gov. Bob Taft ordered in October to help erase a $1.5 billion deficit in the state's $44.9 billion two-year budget.

        The state also will close dormitories at three other prisons, while units that never opened will remain closed at three more. In all, the department expects to save more than $19 million — the amount equal to the latest budget cut, Mr. Wilkinson said. It also will increase the overall prison population from 113 percent capacity to 118 percent, and increase inmate-to-guard ratios, which now stand at 6-to-1.

        While calling those figures a concern, Mr. Wilkinson said, “I wouldn't put it in the critical category.”

        “We are fortunate at this time that our prisoner population has not increased dramatically over the last four years,” he said. “If that number was a lot higher, I may have been more persistent in that we can't close any facilities.” The prisoner population has dropped about 4,000 since its peak of 49,000 inmates in 1998.

        The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents about 10,000 prison workers, blasted Mr. Wilkinson's decision, saying it will lead to unsafe conditions for inmates and employees.

        “We're returning to staffing patterns that mirror the period of the Lucasville riot,” said Tim Shafer, a top union official, speaking of the 1993 standoff that left eight dead, including one guard.

        Prison records show that in 1993, prior to the riot, capacity levels reached more than 174 percent.

        Union leaders were pushing the state to close North Coast Correctional in Lorian County, one of two private prisons in Ohio. But Mr. Wilkinson said Friday that would not have saved enough money by itself.

        The state asked union members to forgo roll-call pay, 30 minutes of overtime for a 10-minute briefing prior to a shift. If the union agreed, the state might have closed the private prison, or no prison at all, Mr. Wilkinson said.

        Mr. Shafer said the union offered several ideas that would “share the pain,” including every employee in the prison system subtracting one paid work hour per week. Mr. Wilkinson said that wasn't a real option.

        Mr. Wilkinson chose Orient for several reasons, including age of the buildings, type of inmates held there and the fact that there are other prisons nearby.

        “Although this is devastating to a lot of people, it's not as devastating to a community than if it were a stand-alone prison,” he said.

        Dan Pifer, owner of Bob's Place, an Orient tavern, agreed. He estimated that few people living in this farming community of 270 actually work in the prison.

        Mr. Pifer feared the shutdown might affect home values and the planned building of new homes in the community.

        “Until I start getting some feedback from my customers, I won't know,” he said. “I certainly feel sorry for the people who are going to lose their jobs.”


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