Saturday, August 30, 2003

Meter runs while judge blocks prison shutdown


By James Hannah
The Associated Press

Saving $25 million a year by closing a prison has a hitch: Ohio taxpayers will have to pay to keep it open until a court battle can be resolved.

Gov. Bob Taft had intended to close Lima Correctional Institution on July 12. However, Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Warren last week halted the shutdown, saying the governor lacked authority to close the prison.

On Thursday, Warren said the state can't transfer any more inmates to other prisons or lay off workers there until Ohio's appeal is heard.

Taxpayers will pay to maintain the Lima prison at reduced-inmate levels and for more guards and overtime because the inmate transfers have increased the populations at other prisons.

The state has estimated that it costs about $78,000 a day to run the Lima prison. The attorney general's office did not have an estimate of the additional costs of caring for the transferred prisoners.

"It sounds to me like we're probably going to be paying twice to guard the same prisoners," said Scott Pullins, chairman and CEO of the Ohio Taxpayers Association.

About 950 of the 1,500 Lima inmates have been transferred or completed their sentences since Taft ordered the closing in January.

None of the 431 employees has been laid off because their union challenged the state's rationale for layoffs. The dispute ended up in arbitration and then in court, which blocked any layoffs.

David Singleton, executive director of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, a Cincinnati-based group that supplies legal services to communities that fight the building of prisons, said taxpayer money was being wasted.

"That makes no sense," Singleton said. "The governor is moving in the right direction in trying to downsize the prison system."

Ohio had 45,600 prison inmates at the end of 2002, an increase of 0.8 percent from the previous year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That compared to a national increase of 2.6 percent, and a 1.9 percent increase in the Midwest.

State Rep. Chris Redfern, the Democratic leader in the House, said it will save money in the long run to keep the medium-security prison open because the employees would keep their jobs and continue to pay income and sales taxes. He has urged Attorney General Jim Petro to let the judge's decision stand.

"My fear is that dragging this legal battle out further will cost Ohio taxpayers money unnecessarily - money that could be put to better use," Redfern said.

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