The recent protest involving more than 200 inmates at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown could not have come at a worse time for the owner, Corrections Corporation of America.
Nashville-based CCA is in a battle to renew a federal government contract that would keep 1,500 inmates housed and rehabilitated at its 16-year-old Youngstown prison.
There’s another private prison operator with a facility in Pennsylvania that’s competing with CCA, which had to meet an Aug. 15 deadline to make its case to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Community support is a key element in the competition, and over the past several months local political, business and community leaders have expressed their unstinting support for the private prison and the owner, CCA.
Unfortunately, the 14-hour sit-in at NEOCC on Aug. 12 intersected with the deadline for the federal contract submission, which turned the spotlight on the prison — and not in a good way.
To make matters worse, CCA shrouded the upheaval at the prison in secrecy, giving rise to a slew of rumors, including one that mentioned the “r” word — as in riot.
The rumors took in a life of their own because prison officials were stingy with information. Indeed, Youngstown officials, including the mayor and police chief, were not able to answer reporters’ questions because they had not received any formal reports or any details about what was occurring inside the prison.
CCA kept such a tight lid on the situation that state Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, a member of the Ohio General Assembly’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, was denied access when he tried to enter the prison one day after the protest.
Growing public dissatisfaction with CCA, coupled with Mayor John A. McNally’s public criticism of the lack of transparency, finally prompted company higher-ups to meet with McNally, Hagan and other government officials.
“The meeting went very well, and the officials from CCA completely understand our concerns,” the mayor said after the closed-door session.
Hagan said he and others “finally got some answers.” But he correctly noted that it took a CCA official from Nashville to come to Youngstown to answer the questions that had been asked from the outset.
It is disturbing, given the record of other incidents at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, that prison officials did not immediately appoint one person to serve as a liaison with Youngstown city government.
In fact, we seem to recall that after the last incident, CCA officials pledged to not only alert city government to any trouble, but to keep the lines of communications open so the mayor, police chief and others could warn residents if the situation became a public threat.
It is now clear that someone in the company dropped the ball.
If CCA expects to continue enjoying the strong support of the community, it must adopt a firm policy to deal with city government and the press.
There should be one person with the authority to communicate with the outside world and provide truthful information. Anything less is unacceptable and a breach of public trust.