“It was deathly quiet. Nobody could believe what we heard. Nobody knew what to say,” says Bobbie Peters, who heads up the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association union chapter at the state prison.
The stunning news was that workers at the Lorain County prison would keep their jobs, after months of assuming they would be sold off to the highest bidder in accordance with the state’s plan to go public with five of its prisons.
Instead, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced Thursday that it would not sell Grafton after saying for months that it would. Instead, Grafton will merge with the now-privately run North Coast Correctional Treatment Facility across the street by December 31. North Coast, which had been run by Management and Training Corp. of Utah, will revert to state-run management.
Jesse Williams, an assistant director for the ODRC, had gathered the staff at Grafton together in the chapel Thursday morning to share news of their reprieve. Even the warden had no idea it was coming.
Peters said that although Grafton employees fought to keep the prison open — through relentless pickets, protests, talks with lawmakers at local and state levels, and other forms of advocacy — most had resigned themselves to losing their jobs. The news that came instead left most of them speechless.
“People were walking around all day in disbelief,” Peters says.
The downside of the state’s action is that North Coast’s employees will be laid off by MTC and will likely be required to reapply for their jobs with the state employees’ union. Still, the new plan appears to have averted thousands of layoffs before the end of the year.
Peters, who works in records administration at Grafton, says it is ironic that the state decided to merge Grafton and North Coast now. In the early 2000s, her union approached the ODRC with suggestions on how to save costs — and came up with a plan very similar to the one now being undertaken by the state. However, the ODRC did not consult with the OCSEA about how to save money at Grafton or the other state facilities before deciding to put them up for sale.
In its September 1 announcement, the ODRC also said it hopes to save $7 million from the merger of Grafton and North Coast.
The news followed an effort last week by the liberal policy group Progress Ohio to block the presumed sale in court. That effort was shot down by a Columbus judge earlier this week. One day later, the group's motivation for filing the lawsuit was rendered practially moot.
The state in April had put six public facilities up for sale, but now it will sell only one — Lake Erie Correctional in Ashtabula (to the Corrections Corporation of America). The ODRC also said it would turn over management of Marion County’s North Central Correctional Institution to the private MTC. The state also is reopening a vacant juvenile facility in Marion, which will be run by MTC.
The Kasich administration had said it hoped to generate $200 million from the sale of the prisons to fill gaps in Ohio’s budget deficit. It sought to save additional funds by requiring bidders for the facilities to demonstrate they could run the prisons at least 5 percent cheaper than the state could.
CCA is buying Lake Erie for $72.7 million, according to an ODRC press release; the statement also said CCA is projecting its costs will be 8 percent less at Lake Erie than they have been as a state-run facility. But even if those figures are realized over the coming years, the state obviously is not generating nearly as much as predicted from the sales of the properties.
ODRC spokesman Carlo LoParo did not return phone calls for comment. — Loretta Ashyk