Prison Assaults Worsem – Alan Johnson, Columbus Dispatch

Posted: May 28, 2011 in News and politics
Reducing Inmate Violence is a top priority for New Director
Published: 05/02/2011
COLUMBUS, OH In only 15 minutes, Jeremy Yantes’ life changed completely. Yantes, a 31-year-old corrections officer at the Madison Correctional Institution in London, was dealing with an unruly inmate on March 4 when things got out of control. The inmate punched and kicked the unarmed Yantes in the head, causing a serious frontal-lobe brain injury that has lingering effects nearly two months later.

The father of three isn’t sure when, or if, he can go back to work. He and his wife, Julie, moved in with a family member last week because his workers’-comp income isn’t enough to make ends meet.

Similarly, corrections officer Donald Olah had been at work for only five minutes on Feb. 11 when an inmate, without warning, hit him in the face with two padlocks attached to the buckle-end of a belt. Olah went down immediately.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “It felt like it was a brick.”

On Tuesday, Olah, 55, will return to Grafton Correctional Institution for the first time in nearly three months. He has permanently lost vision in his left eye.

Those are but two examples of escalating violence in Ohio prisons directed at both staff members and inmates.

In the past four years, nearly 8,600 assaults were reported in the prison system, 4,157 of them on corrections officers and other staff members, state records show. Of those, 116 were considered serious: stab wounds, concussions and head trauma, fractures and sprains, eye injuries, a damaged spinal cord, nerve damage and bite wounds.

The totals also include sexual assaults and “harassment,” which typically means throwing or expelling bodily fluids or feces.

County prosecutors file charges in only about one of 10 staff assault cases, prison officials said. Prosecutors cite financial constraints and often argue that it’s futile to file charges against inmates already behind bars, some of them for life.

Gary C. Mohr, Ohio prisons director, is working with Attorney General Mike DeWine to support local prosecutors so they pursue charges in more of the serious cases of assault on staff members.

“There’s not one priority of mine any greater than reducing inmate violence,” said Mohr, a corrections veteran who was lured back to the state system by Gov. John Kasich.

“This is not the same system I left 81/2 years ago,” he said. “The biggest difference is the level of violence.”

Mohr said there has been a steady increase in violence for many years. He said violent incidents involving six or more inmates are erupting, on average, every week, compared with once a month five years ago.

His main weapon to combat violence is reinstituting “unit management,” a system dropped because of budget constraints three years go. It involves putting more corrections offices and case managers directly in cell blocks and prison dormitories.

“I want them to look eyeball to eyeball with these inmates,” Mohr said. “I want a team whose job is to know the inmates, know their tendencies, and intervene before they do stupid things and hurt people.”

Mohr said he also is working on a plan to lock down violent gang members and to transfer younger problem inmates to more-secure facilities.

Statistically, the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville is the state’s most-violent prison. It accounts for 18percent of all serious staff injuries and 30percent of staff assaults, plus 7.2 percent of serious inmate injuries and 28 percent of inmate assaults.

The Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell has had an upsurge in inmate-on-inmate violence, with 63 serious injuries in the past four years.

Prison officials and union leaders point to several causes of the outbreak, including overcrowding. The state system is 31 percent above capacity, resulting in double- and even triple-bunking in areas originally designed for one inmate.

In addition, there is an influx of young, aggressive inmates, many of them coming from the youth prison system.

Finally, Ohio prisons have a gang problem. An estimated 17 percent of the nearly 31,000 inmates belong to one of dozens of gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Aryan Brotherhood and Heartless Felons.

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