The state can sell a central Ohio prison to a private company under a bill on the way to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, creating the second privately owned and operated correctional institution in the state.
The legislation approved last month authorizes Ohio to put North Central Correctional Institution in Marion up for sale on the condition it's still run as a prison.
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The sale will allow the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to put the proceeds toward programs that provide an alternative to housing offenders in prisons, said agency spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.
The facility is currently state-owned but operated by Utah-based private prison company Management and Training Corp. A second prison, Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, is owned and operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. The state sold it to CCA four years ago for $73 million.
Smith said the state still owes $10 million for the construction of North Central and an accompanying minimum security camp facility. The prison needs $33 million in repairs over the next 10 years.
The bill doesn't set a sale date. MTC will continue to operate the prison through June 2017, when it will have to bid for the contract again.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio criticized the proposal, saying it was rushed through without public input. It also said the Lake Erie facility has had numerous problems, including overcrowding, staff shortages and safety concerns.
Assaults, fights, disturbances and use of force by guards all increased at Lake Erie in comparison to past years, according to a 2013 report by the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The report found high levels of gang activity, illegal substance use and staff turnover, and frequent reports by inmates of extortion and theft.
A follow-up report six months later said conditions had improved but problems remained, especially with security.
The union representing state prison guards is concerned about the safety of guards, inmates and nearby residents, based on problems at Lake Erie, said Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
The union said cellphone smuggling has been especially bad at Lake Erie.