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The Associated Press March 22, 2011, 8:28AM ET

Director says Ohio prison sale helps avoid cuts

If Ohio officials do not pursue the sale of five state prisons, multiple prisons would likely have to close, inmates would be shipped out of state and thousands of employees would be laid off, the state's prison director said Monday.

Gary Mohr told an Ohio House committee that his Department of Rehabilitation and Correction faces "historic budget challenges" in the coming two-year budget, partly because it no longer can count on the $300 million in federal stimulus money it got in the last budget.

Gov. John Kasich wants to sell five prisons to private operators, overhaul sentencing laws and charge inmates for electricity in an effort to save millions of dollars amid an $8 billion budget shortfall.

Selling the prisons could generate $200 million for the state, Mohr said. However, the department's budget only accounts for $50 million from the sale.

"Quite frankly, if we didn't have it, I don't even want to have to think about what we'd have to do to get by," Mohr said.

The budget plan calls for 720 positions to be eliminated, though department spokesman Carlo LoParo said the agency anticipates a staff reduction of 374 because workers could apply for other open jobs. Educational administrators and some clerical and supervisory positions would be among those cut, he said.

Another 767 state prison workers could expect layoff notices with the sale of two of five facilities -- Grafton Correctional Institution in Grafton and North Central Correctional Institution in Marion. Those employees would be offered other jobs, LoParo said.

Buyers would have to give preference to existing employees when hiring, Mohr said. Six-month early retirement will be offered to about 100 eligible employees, and unions will be able to collectively bargain for how other positions will be filled.

Two of the five prisons already are privately run, though the state owns the buildings. Those include North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility, also in Grafton, and Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut. The governor is also targeting a juvenile prison in Marion that closed in 2009.

Under Ohio law, private operators have to deliver a 5 percent savings over similar public facilities -- which the state estimates will mean $9.3 million over the two-year budget cycle.

The private operators could be selected as soon as July, allowing them to then take over the five facilities by the end of the year, Mohr said. The companies would not get to choose their inmates.

Mohr acknowledged some of the changes would be tough. "I don't think many of us have slept," he said.

The agency plans to hold town hall meetings in Marion and Grafton to discuss how the sale could impact the communities. Mohr said the department also set up an email address for staff to ask questions about the budget.

Looking for ways to save, the department is exploring the idea of partnering with Ohio State University and other state agencies to directly buy food. Currently, the agency pays the Department of Mental Health to purchase food for prisoners.

"We're going to essentially cut out the middle man where we're not paying someone to do the purchasing for us," LoParo said. "The university makes sense because they purchase high volumes of food."

Additional cost-cutting measures include allowing certain inmates to reduce their sentences by participating in substance abuse training and other programs.

"We're treating everyone the same and we've got to do a much better job," he said.

Another part of Kasich's plan would allow first-time property crime and drug offenders to serve probation instead of prison sentences and attend treatment as needed.

Mohr told lawmakers the change was key to reducing the number of short-term offenders that go through the prison system.

In 2009, more than 11,900 -- or 46 percent -- of those who entered the system served sentences of one year or less. Often, he said, those offenders are bunked with criminals who committed more serious offenses.

"It is difficult for the department to provide any meaningful programming for offenders serving such short prison stays, and they are often released back to the community with no supervision," he said. "While freeing up expensive prison beds, such an approach will also ensure that these offenders are supervised for longer periods of time."

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