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Feds have incentive to buy Youngstown's private prison



Published: Sun, August 11, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



To hear U.S. Marshal David Troutman tell it, prison overcrowding has become such a major problem that federal inmates from the northern district of Ohio are being moved as far away as Holmes and Ashland counties and to Milan, Mich. And yet, there is a 2,106-bed prison on the North Side of Youngstown that is empty and could be easily converted to use by the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Indeed, the owner of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center on Hubbard Road, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, is ready and willing to sell the relatively new facility to the federal government. So, what's stopping this match made in heaven from becoming a reality?

Washington bureaucracy, to be blunt about it.

Five months ago, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons and CCA were in Youngstown on a fact-finding mission and toured the prison, which has been empty since the last of the 1,700 inmates were transferred out July 12. The shutdown resulted in nearly 500 workers, mostly city residents, losing their jobs. That, in turn, has exacerbated the city of Youngstown's financial crisis, since prison workers paid income taxes.

Troutman, who is the marshal for the northern district of Ohio, recently came face to face with the reality of prison overcrowding when Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington notified federal authorities that he could no longer house their prisoners. The reason: The 50 federal inmates were responsible for overcrowding in the criminal justice center on Fifth Avenue.

Mahoning County operates a full-service jail and a minimum-security facility across the street. Together, the facilities can hold up to 542 prisoners under normal circumstances. Recently, there were 590, which required the jail staff to double up inmates in some cells.

Loss of income

Troutman, who had to scramble to find new space for the federal prisoners, says he understands that the sheriff's first responsibility is to take care of the courts he serves within Mahoning County. Indeed, Wellington would rather have not sent the federal inmates away, since the government pays Mahoning County $67 a day for each one. They're usually housed in the county jail while awaiting arraignment on trials in federal court.

From October 2000 to September 2001, Mahoning County received $872,041 from Washington. But the county cannot house those inmates at the risk of triggering a lawsuit over overcrowding.

From where we sit, the solution is so obvious that it may be difficult for federal bureaucrats to comprehend. Or, there could be another agenda being pursued by some decision-makers that could end up costing the taxpayers even more money than the government would spend buying a perfectly suitable existing facility.




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