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Ohio's Understaffed Prison Watchdog Has Unpaid Interns Conducting Inspections

Dan Konik

The legislative watchdog evaluating Ohio's prisons is so short-staffed that unpaid interns are working on inspections, prompting concerns from critics about oversight of the prison system.

But the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee's inspection reports are up to date despite the "troubling" staffing situation, the panel's interim chairman told The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

The committee inspects 30 state correctional facilities and reports to lawmakers on issues affecting inmates, such as prison conditions, health care and use of force. The committee's administrative staff shrunk over the past five years, from a handful of inspectors with criminal-justice backgrounds to a single full-time employee in recent months.

"As you might imagine, this has been troubling for me," said Republican state Rep. Doug Green, of Mount Orab, who restarted the committee's rare meetings last fall after becoming interim chairman. "People can go above and beyond for a while, but to do that with one employee is unrealistic."

Critics argue that inspections should be done by knowledgeable, paid staff, not interns, and that the committee isn't living up to its intended purposes.

"To have inexperienced interns investigating and evaluating what is going on in Ohio prisons is not what the statute requires," two longtime inmate advocates, attorneys Alice and Staughton Lynd, said in an email to the newspaper.

The inspections at issue used to be posted online within a month. The online reports haven't been updated since 2017, but Green said the inspections are up to date.

A prisons spokeswoman wouldn't comment, nor would the committee's full-time employee, 52-year-old senior research analyst Charlotte Adams, who served as an administrator in the prison system for almost two decades.

Both referred questions to Green, who said he hopes to bring accountability to the committee.

How it approaches its work could be affected by which lawmakers are named to the bipartisan committee in the new legislative session that just started. Those assignments are expected this week.

The committee has met sparsely over the past few years, especially since its leaders departed.

Then-director Joanna Saul resigned in May 2016 after clashing with lawmakers in attempts to access medical and mental-health information. The committee's meetings then stopped after the lawmaker serving as its chairman resigned in October 2017.

Saul, now the prison ombudsman for Washington state, has argued that what happens in publicly funded prisons housing tens of thousands of inmates deserves an objective review.

"There are serious issues within the corrections system in Ohio, and people should be concerned that there is no oversight," she told the newspaper.