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Ohio Prison Wardens and Workers Keep Close Watch On Growing Number of Prisoners.

Ohio's prison population recently topped 50,000 inmates, or more than 30 percent over capacity. The crowded prisons has subtly changed how wardens, corrections officers, and other prison workers do their jobs. W-O-S-U's Tom Borgerding recently visited the Pickaway Correctional Institution where more than 2,300 inmates are serving time.

Pickaway Correctional Instititution Warden Al Lazarof says, in his job, he wants to avoid two things, prison disturbances, and inmate escapes. Pickaway is a medium security lock-up with two perimeter fences, reinforced with two rolls of concertina wire along the base of the fence and more of the razor sharp strands along the top.

"We look at inmates based on risk of violence and potential for escape. We do this actually when they come into the system. Look at their past history of potential escapes. We also look at how long they're going to serve in prison. We look at their age. We look at what they've accomplished in life, whether they've achieved a high school diploma. Things like that are all factors that have been studied to suggest what the risk is." Says Lazarof.

Lazarof adds that as the prisons get more crowded he's made a point of filling vacancies in the ranks of correctional officers or guards. With a population of 2,333 inmates, Lazarof says its important to have adequate staff.

"290 correction officers. Oh I'd always love to have more. But we're doing pretty well with that. One of our problems is keeping our vacancies filled. We've worked pretty hard in the two months that I've been here to increase our number of officers. So, we're working on that. We're a little bit short." Says Lazarof.

As the warden walks the yard at mid-morning, some prisoners greet him while others avoid eye contact. A small group of men enjoy an outdoor smoke break. Other prisoners have jobs in the print shop where they earn between 21 cents and 57 cents per hour. The money is either saved or used to pay court costs or in some cases sent home to relatives. Lazarof says the higher number of prisoners puts added strain not only on staff, but on budgets and infrastructure.

"As we get more people jammed in here we're using more water. We have to heat more water for showers. We're feeding more people. We're providing more medications, and our budget doesn't increase so we have to figure out ways to squeeze that out of our budget." Says Lazarof.

In the dining hall, tables are bolted to the floor. Food Service Manager, Melinda Blaney, says prisoners have to eat in shifts since the dining area has room for only 450 at a time. Blaney says she uses a method she calls "progressive cooking" in an effort to save taxpayer money.

"One of the biggest challenges is waste because we want to save the state money. So, what we're trying to do is do some progressive cooking to where if our count on this compound is 1,800 we actually start cooking at 1,500 and go up from there." Blaney explains that some of the inmates will choose to snack on vendor items on days they dislike the menu choices.

"We serve everything from cheeseburgers to tuna salad. On tuna salad day there may be a lot of residents here that don't like tuna. So if you don't like tuna we might only serve 1,200 residents where on cheeseburger day we might serve 1,800. So, we have to keep watching and do the math to save money." Says Blaney.

After lunch or dinner, some inmates head to the prison gym where they can play billiards, basketball, practice in the prison band, do chin-ups, or lift weights. As a medium security prison, Pickaway still has weights. They were eliminated in maximum security lock-ups after a deadly riot at Lucasville in the early 1990s, caused in part, by overcrowding.

"There used to be free weights in many of our prisons. And, within a year after the Lucasville riot those weights were removed, the free weights, and there are only weight machines. And, the weight machines are only allowed at the lower security institutions. So places like Lucasville will no longer have weights." Says Lazarof.

Lazarof estimates that 80 percent of the inmates who arrive at Pickaway have what he calls a "serious drug or alcohol problem." So, he says, intervention programs are important to keep inmates occupied. Pickaway contracts with another state agency to operate what's called a "Therapeutic Community" where prisoners get counseling. Counselor Scott Anderson says his clients behind prison walls are much the same as clients outside prison walls.

"These guys basically got caught one more time. (q: Is that right?) Yeah, that's basically the only difference. These are the same people that live in your town and they're going back to your town. So we're doing everything we can to make sure they come back a little bit better prepared to be productive members of society." Says Anderson.

Pickaway Correctional Institution also operates a Health Center with 108 beds, an emergency room, a dialysis unit that's used for prisoners around the state, a pharmacy, and a dental clinic. Since the prison is situated adjacent to the old Orient Correctional Institution, warden Lazarof says there is possibly room for even more prisoners.

"Well, we're still studying it but I think we're looking at around a capacity of 800 more." Says Lazarof.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News