By BURTON SPEAKMAN
Questions are being raised after a number of prisoners staged a protest at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center on Hubbard Road.
Approximately 140 inmates refused to leave the recreation yard for 14 hours, though prison officials said the situation ended peacefully early Wednesday.
The private facility provided scant answers to media inquiries about the episode, however.
The aunt of one of the inmates and a local politician are among those asking questions.
Corrections Corporation of America, which owns NEOCC, said in a statement: “Overnight, staff at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center secured a peaceful resolution to an incident in which a group of inmates on the smaller recreation yard refused orders to return to their cells. All inmates have now peacefully exited the recreation yard and are secured in their cells.
“At no time did any incidents of violence occur, and the community was not in danger. All staff and inmates are accounted for. The facility is secured and remains in lockdown as a precautionary measure while an investigation is conducted. Facility management notified its partner, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and kept officials apprised through the duration of the incident.”
CCA has declined to provide any additional comment.
State Rep. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, a member of the Ohio General Assembly’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, was able to enter the prison Wednesday. Hagan said officials inside told him anywhere from 40 to 240 prisoners were involved and the protest lasted from 2 p.m. Tuesday until 4 a.m. Wednesday.
“I attempted to interview the spokesman for the prisoners, but the warden nixed that,” he said. “He said I wasn’t going to be allowed to interfere with their investigation.”
Hagan said he wished he had been able to get more information. “I’m not satisfied. We need more transparency,” he said.
The CIIC plans to conduct a investigation of the NEOCC within the next few weeks to find out more, Hagan said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has had anonymous conversations with current and past NEOCC employees who acknowledge the same issues that inmates have, said Mike Brickner from the ACLU in Cleveland.
The issues include a lack of programming for inmates, little training for staff, poor food and a lack of understanding of the rules by both inmates and staff, he said.
Warden Mike Pugh spoke to the Youngstown Police Department about 5:15 p.m. Tuesday and informed the city that while the inmates were refusing to leave the yard, the situation was peaceful and the prison did not need any assistance, according to a YPD report.
The call from YPD was initiated after a call to the police from Ligia Cabrera of the Bronx, N.Y., whose nephew, Hector Mercedes, is an inmate.
Cabrera said her nephew called her Tuesday and said there was a riot going on at the prison.
“He asked me to call the police, media — anyone who could get them some help — and then the call disconnected,” Cabrera said. “I called the prison today, and they told me he was safe and still there, but that was all that they could tell me.”
Cabrera said she was considering coming to Youngstown to check on the condition of her nephew and was still hoping to get more information.
Neither city police nor the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office was called to assist. The Ohio State Highway Patrol did have a supervisor at the prison to provide assistance if needed, but it was not.
If any inmates are to be charged in connection with Tuesday’s events, those charges would have to come from either the YPD or FBI because the NEOCC is a private prison.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction was made aware of the episode but has little information because the prison does not house any state inmates, said JoEllen Smith, ODRC spokeswoman. All the men housed at the prison are federal inmates.
The state has a working relationship with private prisons, and they do share information, she said.
CCA is seeking a renewal for the NEOCC contract with the federal government to house inmates at the site. The contract expires May 31, 2015.
The ACLU opposes the contract renewal.
Brickner said the lack of information that is available in episodes such as Tuesday’s is part of the reason why the organization opposes a new pact.
“Frankly, one of the problems with private facilities is that you can’t get information in situations like this,” he said.
There are times when something serious will happen at a private prison, and because of the secrecy, the community will have no idea that something occurred, Brickner said.
There would be considerably more information available about what happened at NEOCC if it had occurred at a state-run prison, he said.
If there were a critical incident, “there would be an administrative and potentially a criminal investigation completed. There would also be an after-action review conducted to review any actions taken to restore order,” Smith said.
“Typically, when dealing with prisons, you get two stories: one from inmates and another from corrections officers,” Brickner said.
Brickner pointed to a federal lawsuit filed by inmate Christopher Oguaju as a good example of the alleged issues at the site. Oguaju filed the suit on his own, and the ACLU is not involved in the case, Brickner said.
The lawsuit complains about inadequate staffing at the prison and improper care for inmates with medical conditions, and says inmates are abandoned and unsupervised in some areas because of low staffing numbers.
Oguaju’s lawsuit further claims the low staffing has made the facility dangerous due to the presence of suspected gang members from various Mexican drug cartels and puts unaffiliated inmates in risk of physical harm.