By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
When state officials wanted more money for Ohio's prisons during the past decade, all they had to do was say the word:
One mention of the Lucasville prison riot - one of the longest and bloodiest in U.S. history - was often enough to persuade state lawmakers to pour millions of tax dollars into Ohio's correctional system.
The goal was to spend whatever was necessary to make up for the years of neglect and bare-bone budgets that many blamed for the 11 days of rioting at Lucasville's Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in April 1993.
In just a decade, the state nearly tripled the correctional system's budget, built a dozen prisons, hired 900 new guards and overhauled a range of inmate services, from medical care to educational programs.
But as the 10th anniversary of the riot approaches this week, much of that commitment is in jeopardy.
Prison budgets are facing their second straight year of cuts. Two-thirds of the state's prisons now house more inmates than they were designed to hold. And correctional officers are once again complaining about long hours and unsafe conditions.
Some legislators and activists say the state's commitment to improve Ohio's prisons is fading, along with the memory of how and why the riot took place.
Some even suggest that the risk of violence at one of Ohio's 33 state-run prisons is now as great as at any time since Easter Sunday 1993, the day hundreds of inmates in Cell Block L seized control in Lucasville.
"We were ahead of the curve and now we're sliding back," said Mark Mallory, a state senator from Cincinnati who has been active in prison issues. "We're following a formula that could lead us down the path to another Lucasville."
The recent setbacks are rooted in a statewide budget crunch that has forced almost every state agency - including the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction - to cut spending and staff.
Given the slumping national economy, the cuts are neither surprising nor unique to Ohio. At least 47 states have cut prison budgets in the past year.
But the stakes for Ohio are especially high. After the Lucasville riot, the state undertook some of the most expensive and ambitious prison reforms in the country.
The changes transformed a crowded prison system that was once considered among the worst in the country. Now, prison officials say, they routinely get calls from administrators in other states who hope to learn from Ohio's reforms.
"Ohio is a model, and that's not something I could have said 10 years ago," said Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "After Lucasville, everybody knew what we were doing and why we were asking for help.
"Prisons got the kind of attention they deserved."
The future of the reforms, however, depends on how prison officials and state lawmakers respond to the budget squeeze.
Some, including guards and former inmates, are questioning how wisely prison administrators have spent all the money they received in the decade since Lucasville. Others, like Wilkinson, worry that the reforms the money funded are now only a budget cut away from oblivion.
"We've taken some significant cuts," Wilkinson said. "As the budget situation gets worse, I'm afraid of the consequences."
From 'dire shape' to reform
Until recently, Wilkinson didn't have to worry much about his budget.
After the riot, the phrase "We can't afford another Lucasville" became the battle cry of prison officials seeking money for reforms. The strategy worked. Few were willing to challenge proposals aimed at preventing a riot such as Lucasville's, in which nine inmates and a hostage guard were killed and some $40 million in damage was done to the prison.
"Trying to get a legislator to care about prisons prior to 1993 was impossible," said Peter Wray, spokesman for the union that represents correctional officers. "But after the riot, they were all saying, 'Why didn't anybody do something about this?' "
They soon became convinced that years of inaction had taken a toll.
At the time of the riot, the state's prisons were filled to nearly 150 percent of their intended capacity, and many facilities were at more than 200 percent capacity. The inmate population in 1993 had risen to more than 35,000 and guards were outnumbered nearly 9 to 1, a ratio almost twice the national average.
Tension inside the prisons was rising, too. Many prisons, including Lucasville, had begun placing two inmates in every cell, a practice that exacerbated gang and racial violence.
"The entire system was in dire shape," Wray said.
The tension exploded in violence at Lucasville on April 11, when some 400 inmates easily overwhelmed the guards and took control of Cell Block L.
Change came quickly after the riot. "It was like everyone finally realized what could happen if they didn't do something," recalls Frank Peters, a retired Lucasville guard who was on duty the day of the riot.
The prison system's budget rose from $680 million in 1993 to more than $1.5 billion in 2001. The addition of the new prisons and 900 new guards gradually reduced the guard-to-inmate ratio to the national average of 5.4 to 1.
The state also eliminated double-celling at Lucasville and implemented a series of reforms designed to make life safer for inmates and guards.
Community-based drug treatment centers were built in some cities, including Cincinnati, to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison. And more money was pumped into medical care, mental health programs and security.
"You would have been hard-pressed," Wilkinson said, "to find as many positive things happening anywhere else in the country."
Funding cut prompts closures
Wilkinson used to talk about those changes whenever he attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of another prison.
"We used to say how secure these jobs were and how the institution would have a positive impact on the community for years to come," Wilkinson said. "We don't say that any more."
The budget crisis hit home in 2002, when the prison budget was cut for the first time in 12 years. Not only did the department take a $10 million hit from 2001, it lost more than $120 million in additional spending that Wilkinson had hoped would sustain the reform effort. Another cut is expected this year.
The department responded by closing one prison and is preparing to close another. That, in turn, has boosted the inmate population at other facilities. Lucasville remains below capacity and is considered far safer than it was in the days before the riot. Other prisons, however, are not so fortunate.
The Lorain Correctional Institution in northeast Ohio is by far the most crowded prison in the system at 268 percent of capacity. It is one of four prisons that now house about twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold.
Overall, the prison system houses 45,000 inmates and is operating at 124 percent of capacity this year, up from 113 percent in 2002.
"Anytime prisoners want to take over, they can," said Mark Piepmeier, the Hamilton County assistant prosecutor who led the prosecution of Lucasville rioters. "Not like before, but it could happen."
Chris Mabe, a veteran correctional officer, sees the impact of the budget cuts every day when he goes to work at Lorain Correctional.
Dozens of inmates sleep on bunk beds in an open area between rows of cells because there is no other place to put them, Mabe said. With 2,000 inmates packed into a prison designed for about 750, guards are often asked to work overtime shifts to make sure security is adequate.
Sometimes, though, it's difficult for guards to prevent the petty thefts and arguments that can lead to bigger problems. "It hampers our ability to have good security," Mabe said.
Just over a month ago, an argument over a card game escalated into several fights among inmates. It took nearly an hour for guards to restore order.
"All those (guards) were hired for a reason 10 years ago," Mabe said. "We should never forget that reason."
Oversight panel dismantled
While prisons have become more crowded and tense, oversight has been reduced. The Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, which inspected prisons and investigated 1,500 inmate complaints every month, fell victim to budget cuts two years ago.
"That was a critical part of the improvement in Ohio's prisons," said State Sen. Mallory, a member of the committee. "All of that is lost."
The committee's demise was an ominous sign to prisoner rights groups and others who favor continued reforms. To them, oversight is the first line of defense against the nagging complaints and tension that helped spark the Lucasville riot.
"Those are the things that are important, and that's what they're cutting," said Dan Cahill, a former Lucasville inmate who now is director of the Prisoner Advocacy Network of Ohio. "I don't think we've gained any ground."
Cahill and other critics question how well the state spent the billions it invested in prisons after Lucasville. They are convinced that educational, work and drug treatment programs are more worthy of state tax dollars than prison construction.
Those programs, they say, are geared toward keeping offenders from committing more crimes, rather than simply locking them up.
"Work and educational programs are still inadequate, so you have a lot of people in prison just being warehoused," said Niki Schwartz, the Cleveland lawyer who met with rebel inmates and helped negotiate an end to the Lucasville riot. "We're aggravating the problem."
Schwartz said the construction of the $65 million "supermax" prison in Youngstown is an example of money poorly spent.
The Youngstown prison was designed to handle the "worst of the worst," dangerous inmates who could not be adequately supervised in other prisons. But the supermax operates at only 67 percent capacity, in large part because a federal judge ruled that authorities were sending too many low-security inmates there.
So while facilities like Lorain crowd inmates into every available space, the supermax has more than 200 empty beds.
Wilkinson defends the Youngstown facility but acknowledges that building more prisons is no longer the state's best option.
He has high hopes for a new program known as the Ohio Plan for Productive Offender Re-Entry and Recidivism Reduction. The goal of the program is to better prepare inmates for life after prison.
The plan is to work closely with inmates to determine their needs - a drug treatment program? Vocational training? A high school education? - and make sure they get ithem in prison.
The program also could send inmates to halfway houses, boot camps or other locked-down facilities that might be more appropriate than prison.
"The idea is to look at prisoners individually rather than as one size fits all," Wilkinson said.
Although he believes such changes can be made without breaking the budget, future cuts could limit the department's flexibility with its staff and programs.
For Peters, the retired Lucasville guard, the recent budget cuts are a reminder of the years before the riot, when prisons were never a priority.
He knows well the costs of that neglect. He was a friend of Robert Vallandingham, the guard who was murdered by inmates during the riot.
Every Easter, Peters and several other guards go to Vallandingham's grave to pay their respects. They leave flowers near the headstone and say a prayer for their friend, as well as the wife and son he left behind.
"He was a very good friend," Peters said. "He was a real outstanding boy."
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