Prison industry: A sure bet

With discretionary funds from Columbus and Washington that for years have fueled the Mahoning Valley’s economic revitalization drying up, the region must be creative in its job-expansion efforts. Republicans in charge of state government have said that the expected shortfall in the next biennium budget will require deep cuts in spending. Gov-elect John Kasich, who will be sworn in at one minute past midnight Monday, and the GOP leadership in the House and Senate have taken tax increases off the table.

In Washington, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives means that Congressman Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, will no longer be in position to funnel millions of dollars to this area, the way he has done for the past four years when Democrats were in control.

So, what can be done to keep the Valley on the road to recovery? Go after what will be available when Gov. Kasich and the GOP put together the state budget for the next two fiscal years, starting July 1.

Kasich, a former member of Congress who chaired the House budget committee, has talked about privatizing various government operations, including the state prison system. The Valley is in a unique position to benefit from this move.

An ally?

Indeed, the region may even have an ally in Columbus. Last week, the governor-elect named Gary C. Mohr, a veteran of the corrections business, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Mohr was a managing director for Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America from 2007 to 2009, and most recently was a prison consultant, with CCA as a client. For three decades, the 57-year-old Mohr worked in the state prison system, as the agency’s deputy director under Republican Govs. George V. Voinovich and Bob Taft, a warden in three facilities and superintendent of the Department of Youth Services.

But it is his connection to CCA — he and Kasich made it clear that the prisons director would abstain from any decisions involving the private prison company — that gives the Valley a chance to benefit from the privatization.

Why? Because one of CCA’s major facilities, the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, is located on Youngstown’s north side. The 13-year-old, 2,016-bed, male, low-security prison has more than 400 employees.

Most of the inmates are from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. The facility contributes greatly to the economic health of the region.

Consider: If the average salary of the prison employees is $35,000, it means a payroll is more than $15 million. Each employee shells out 2.75 percent in income tax to the city of Youngstown.

An expansion would certainly meet the state’s needs.

NOCC isn’t the only prison in the city. The state of Ohio has the Ohio State Penitentiary on Youngstown’s east side, the first supermax prison built in the state. It has about 400 employees.

Then there is the Community Corrections Association’s half-way house on the south side. Mahoning and Trumbull counties have jails that are run by the sheriff’s departments.

In Columbiana County, the U.S. government has the Federal Correctional Institution. The county jail is privately run.

According to the Dispatch, the state already has contracts for the operation of prisons in Grafton in Lorain County and Conneaut in Ashtabula County. Both are operated by Management & Training Corp. of Centerville, Utah.

Kasich’s plan to privatize the state corrections system is driven by the fact that it takes up a major portion of the operating budget.

Public bidding

The governor-elect and his prisons director, Mohr, said the department’s business would be publicly bid. There is no doubt that Corrections Corporation of America would want a piece of the action, and Youngstown could certainly make the case that having NOCC in the community has been good for all involved.

“I think the public would say, ‘As long as we’re safe, don’t force us to spend a fortune when we don’t have to,” Kasich was quoted as saying, in explaining why privatization would be accepted by the people of Ohio.

The demand for prisons or other correctional facilities will always exist. Youngstown can benefit.

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