Ohio prison guards union seeks additional officers

ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS AP Legal Affairs Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio prisons need an additional 400 guards, the union representing corrections officers said Thursday as it warned that serious inmate assaults on officers are at a 7-year high.

An upcoming state budget proposal to add 83 officers at three individual prisons is not enough to keep guards from being injured and costing the state in workers' comp payouts and overtime costs, the union said. Forty-six officers suffered serious attacks last year, according to the union.

"Too many correctional officers are getting hurt because of the understaffing, and they're getting hurt badly," said Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Union and a guard at Lorain Correctional Institution.

The union says that while the overall rate of assaults on staff has declined, the major assault rate has at its highest in seven years -- a span that has seen nearly 850 guard positions cut. Mabe said the last time the assault rate went down was in 2008, when the state added 57 officers.

The state's prison budget proposal asks for 293 new employees, including the 83 guards but also social workers, parole officers, psychologists, nurses and mental health administrators, among others.

The state shares the union's concerns about guard safety and has zero tolerance for assaults on inmates, said Ricky Seyfang, Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman.

Achieving that requires a collaborative effort of all prison employees, she said.

"We also believe providing offenders with additional access to programming, medical and mental health services reduces violence and equips the offenders with the skills necessary to successfully return to society," Seyfang said.

The state has about 50,400 inmates and about 6,400 guards, a ratio of 7.1 inmates per guard. The 83 new guards would be placed at prisons in Mansfield, Toledo -- site of a recent rise in inmate violence -- and Chillicothe.

Jeffrey Cavendish, 29, a guard at Noble Correctional Institution in southern Ohio, said he lost eight weeks of work after an inmate punched him in the face several times in the prison cafeteria.

Monica Meade, 37, a guard at Trumbull Correctional Institution in northeast Ohio, was on a second-floor unit when an inmate tried to throw her over the balcony. After she resisted, she was punched in the face three times, losing three months of work from her injuries. She debated finding new work -- she is a single mother of three children -- but decided she couldn't let one incident end her career.

Nevertheless, she is more aware of her surroundings now.

"The fear itself that something might happen like that again is always there," Meade said.

The state has recently created a three-tier system that moved thousands of violent inmates to higher-security units. It has also tried to reduce its growing inmate population by focusing on community alternatives and rehabilitation programs designed to prevent former inmates from committing new crimes.

The prisons agency is also working on educating judges about "risk reduction" sentencing that would allow many nonviolent felons to be released from prison after serving at least 80 percent of their sentence.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.