Once famously plagued by violence and escapes, an Ohio prison owned by America’s largest operator of for-profit lockups now faces a new problem: it may soon have no prisoners.
Corrections Corporation of America’s 2,016-bed facility in Youngstown, Ohio currently houses overflow inmates from Washington, D.C. But the federal Bureau of Prisons is taking charge of the capital’s prison system and has announced plans to move all the Youngstown inmates to other facilities by August.
That leaves CCA with two options: find a new contract, or sell the prison. Neither is likely to be easy, given the facility’s troubled history (see the Mother Jones story, “Steel Town Lockdown”). Opened in May 1997, the prison was supposed to house only medium-security inmates, but CCA brought in some of D.C.’s most dangerous cons to help keep its beds filled. As a result, the facility saw 20 stabbings and two killings in its first year, and an escape by six inmates — including five convicted murderers — the next. An ensuing lawsuit forced CCA to send back the maximum-security inmates and boost safety provisions.
Faced with the possible loss of some 500 local jobs — a major concern in the rusting steel town — Youngstown’s mayor, once a a bitter critic of the prison, has turned into one of its biggest boosters. After the 1998 escapes, Mayor George McKelvey told reporters, “Knowing what I know now, I would never have allowed CCA to build a prison here.” Now, he says he’ll do everything he can to keep it open. With the most violent prisoners back in DC, says McKelvey, “it’s as quiet as a church over there.”
McKelvey told The Vindicator, a local newspaper, in early May that he’s willing to grant CCA some leeway in the allowable classification of prisoners they would accept. That could mean accepting “high medium-security” prisoners, said McKelvey, a higher level than the facility currently accepts.
That disturbs critics like Al Gerhardstein, an attorney who brought the 1999 lawsuit against CCA. “The real question is, is the mayor willing to keep the place open to save some jobs at the expense of the security measures that made it a safe prison?”
Adds state senator Bob Hagan, who sponsored a successful bill to empower McKelvey to amend CCA’s contract: “It took two murders and 20 stabbings to convince the state to pass my legislation. Now McKelvey wants to change the classification of prisoners. We can’t afford to go through that again.”
Ohio Governor Bob Taft, meanwhile, has asked the federal government to buy the facility, a move he says could help alleviate crowding in federal prisons, sustain local jobs, and help pull CCA out of its billion-dollar debt. CCA is considering this, but says pursuing new clients takes precedence. “We’re hoping for another go at it in Youngstown,” says CCA spokesperson Steve Owen.
Hagan is hoping they don’t get the chance. “It’s like a monster that won’t go away,” he says. “I know Youngstown needs the jobs. A federal prison will supply jobs just the same. CCA had their chance, and they proved it’s not sustainable for a small town to rely on a private prison economy.”