ACLU wants state help for privatized Ohio prison

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A spike in criminal activity near a recently privatized Ohio prison prompted calls for state help Friday from the American Civil Liberties Union and local officials.

The ACLU said policing the perimeter of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut along Lake Erie is overburdening local authorities and creating unsafe conditions. Eight people have been arrested allegedly attempting to get contraband into the facility in the past three days.

"We've got people throwing contraband over the fence, issues like that," said Conneaut City Councilman Neil LaRusch. "They're bringing crack, they're bringing marijuana, and they're driving through our residential areas to do it. They don't really care about getting caught."

ACLU spokesman Mike Brickner said the group has documented a similar pattern of increased criminal activity around other U.S. prisons taken over by private operators.

"The state needs to take more of a role in this enforcement issue so that it doesn't all fall on the city of Conneaut and its taxpayers," Brickner said. "Conneaut has had a prison there for many, many years, but it hasn't necessitated as much police power. If they want to address the major systemic issues inside, they'll have to start helping control the perimeter."

The prison's owner, Nashville, Tenn.-based Correctional Corporation of America, said new technology it's installed has helped thwart incidents of smuggling at the facility. Spokesman Steve Owen called the ACLU's criticism "close-minded."

"While we cannot prevent people from trying to introduce contraband at the facility, our team, along with local law enforcement, has been able to successfully impede those efforts, which is a positive for facility safety and overall public safety," Owen said in an email.

LaRusch said local leaders met Friday with representatives of the state, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol and area lawmakers, and CCA to discuss their concerns. Conneaut has 10,000 people and 16 police officers.

LaRusch complained to Gov. John Kasich's regional liaison earlier in the week and State Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. John Born responded Friday, saying said the patrol doesn't have jurisdiction to respond to incidents on non-prison property without being asked by local police.

He said despite that limitation, marked cruiser patrols have been increased at the prison. Born wrote that criminal incidents at the prison actually fell between 2011 to 2012, while drug cases rose from four in 2011 to seven in 2012.

By contrast, according to figures LaRusch was provided by Chief Charles Burlingham, Conneaut police have taken 248 calls related to the prison in the past 12 months, compared to 157 prison-related calls over the entire 10 years previous.

Kasich put five state prisons up for sale but Lake Erie -- already privately run by CCA -- was the only one that sold. CCA took over the prison on New Year's Eve 2011, in a deal worth $72.7 million, more than enough to close a $50 million gap in Ohio's prison budget.

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