By Joe Gorman
A prison gives an image of a dark, damp place where people are kept in cells and stay put for the most part.
But that was not the case recently at the CoreCivic Northeast Ohio Correctional Center on Youngstown-Hubbard Road.
Inmates were working, sweeping floors, cleaning offices, using the library and talking.
One person they talked to frequently was Warden Christopher J. LaRose, who worked himself up from a starting job as a corrections officer to a warden, first at Trumbull Correctional Institution, then at NEOCC.
“During the day there’s a lot of movement,” LaRose said.
LaRose spoke to just about every inmate he ran into, and some even sought him out when he led a Vindicator reporter and photographer on a prison tour recently.
The private prison houses inmates for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and federal inmates for the U.S. Marshals and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Reporters were shown the wing where state inmates are held but were not given access to the federal wing.
LaRose said working through the ranks gives him a unique perspective on issues inmates and staff may face. One inmate called him by his last name repeatedly while discussing an issue in the dining room.
LaRose said he is familiar with the inmate because the man served a previous stint in prison when LaRose was at TCI. He said talking to inmates lets him feel “the pulse” of the facility.
NEOCC is also part of the pulse of Youngstown’s economy because of the 471 people it employs who pay the city’s 2.75 percent income tax. The prison also pays employees at the federal wage scale, because of its contracts to house the U.S. Marshals and ICE inmates.
“I think we’re really good for the local economy,” LaRose said.
A recent training session was full. LaRose said the prison is adding more employees, but those employees do not work a shift until they receive at least 250 hours of training. New hires also undergo background checks by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Justice Department and CoreCivic before they are accepted, LaRose said.
“They go through a very detailed screening process,” LaRose said.
The prison also leans heavily toward CoreCivic’s mission of getting inmates prepared for life after they’re released. Amanda Gilchrist, manager of public affairs for CoreCivic, said that change came after a 2014 announcement by their CEO to focus on re-entry.
Several prison programs are designed to help inmates get back to work upon release. They receive training in electrical and masonry work and other trades.
“We’re not judging them on what they did,” said Ed Sauline, who leads a training course for inmates. “It’s what they’re going to do.”
LaRose points out these programs and more, including the murals that adorn the walls of the prison, which were painted by inmates themselves. He said the prison has everything a small city would have as he leads the group into the store.
Inmates have a $60 limit when they shop, and they get to shop once a week for personal items such as soap.
“We have pretty much everything in this facility you would have in the community,” LaRose said.
Inmates also have plenty of opportunities for recreation and exercise with an outdoor exercise yard and a gym where they can play basketball or do other exercises. Pictures in those areas show inmate teams that have won championships in various sports.
LaRose said he also wants to help the community. He is working on a greenhouse to grow vegetables to give to residents, and he wants to partner with other community groups.
“There’s a lot going on here,” LaRose said. “We want to reach out to the community. We want to be a good partner.”