Deterring further violence and unnecessary disruption within ODRC maximum-security facilities

By providing too many privileges to its max-security inmates, Ohio is both undercutting its reformatory mission and putting the safety of everyone behind the wall at risk


The excerpt below has been taken from “Maximum Security, Minimal Appreciation: The Unique and Necessary Mission that Ohio’s Maximum-Security Prisons Accomplish and How to Improve Departmental Success,” originally published in The University of Toledo Law Review. While the abbreviated introduction that follows aims to provide the necessary context for the solution proposed, please see the complete article, which can be downloaded in full at the end, for further context, analysis and references.

– Jesse Scott

As of July 2021, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) oversees 42,964 inmates across 28 separate institutions, 2,319 of which are classified as Level 4 or higher, which require housing in a maximum-security facility (MSF). The MSF population, which has offended and digressed its way into an MSF status, poses a unique challenge to ODRC.

ODRC has attempted to address this concern through its tier system, under which inmates are incentivized to remain rule-compliant by receiving greater privileges and comforts the lower their classification level. As stated by ODRC, the very system is "designed to treat inmates differently," ultimately weeding out of general population the "inmates who are not willing to accept responsibilities for their personal growth and choose to disrupt the operations of Ohio's facilities."

Concerns arise, however, relating to the appropriate privileges and comforts at each level in the tier system, and the constitutional and legal boundaries ODRC may operate within when awarding privileges and comforts. While the Supreme Court has made clear that prisons must provide inmates with humane conditions, including adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care and reasonable safety, the Court has also given lower courts and prison administrators a guiding post in which liability arises only in specific instances where inmates can prove both an objectively serious condition and subjective element of deliberate indifference.

In this Jan. 9, 2019, photo, fences line the exterior of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, in Lucasville, Ohio.
In this Jan. 9, 2019, photo, fences line the exterior of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, in Lucasville, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

And through decades of decisions, the courts have also consistently held that prison is not supposed to be a pleasant experience. Recreation time can be limited, solitary confinement is acceptable, and access to comforts such as phone calls and commissary can be restricted. From this, the question arises as to whether Ohio currently provides too many comforts to its MSF population, which can reward poor behavior and deteriorate the effectiveness of the tier system. An additional consideration necessarily becomes whether the decision to provide these comforts in an MSF environment at all maintains order, safety and the rehabilitative goal of ODRC.

Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF), one of Ohio’s MSFs and the home of the 1993 riot that resulted in the deaths of several inmates and Correctional Officer Bobby Vallandingham, sheds light on these inquiries. Many SOCF inmates are privileged with a large commissary spending limit, frequent library access and recreation periods, routine out-of-cell time for meals and social activities, along with regularly scheduled visits with outside individuals. Many of these inmates even have access to personal televisions, CD players, radios and Wi-Fi-enabled tablets within their cells. At the same time, educational and vocational programming cannot be as readily provided because of the security concerns unique to MSFs.

How should ODRC remedy this institutional failure, one in which the very system in place to incentivize rehabilitative behaviors is more likely to promote the opposite? As the following excerpt provides, the answer is rooted in the creature comforts and privileges that MSF inmates receive. ODRC would not only be well within constitutional bounds to restrict these privileges, but the department would also be doing both inmates and staff a service by tying such privileges to lower-level security institutions.

Modern Theories of MSF Reform Do Not Account for Violent Tendencies 

In 1983, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of Justice held oversight hearings regarding the lockdown conditions at Marion. The subcommittee commissioned two individuals, David Ward and Allen Breed, believed to have expertise in corrections, to make recommendations for the future of MSFs. According to Ward and Breed, the way forward for corrections in the United States involved rejecting lockdown as a permanent correctional practice. Instead, Ward and Breed advocated that a correct model would utilize the surveillance practices accustomed to an MSF, but separated into small units to include “40-50 inmates, all in individual cells, contain dining and laundry facilities, counseling offices, indoor game rooms, a wire enclosed outdoor recreation yard and a work area.” In making this recommendation, Ward and Breed sought to provide inmates the opportunity to congregate within the unit while shedding the distinct features of an MSF: social isolation, minimal stimulation and lack of physical contact.

Though venerable, the recommendations produced by Ward and Breed are not practical. Most MSF inmates are violent and unpredictable. Allowing inmates who are known to have already killed and assaulted within ODRC’s existing MSFs would enable an environment where other inmates and staff may be subjected to further assault while seemingly rewarding unacceptable behavior. This distinctly contradicts the purpose of ODRC’s tier system and would undercut the entirety of progress ODRC has made in its recidivism reduction efforts.

A Tale of two MSFs: why classification level matters

ODRC currently maintains three institutions dedicated to Level 4 or greater inmates: SOCF, Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) and Toledo Correctional Institution (TOCI). Although the three institutions house the most troublesome of Ohio’s inmates, statistical data indicates that SOCF is inherently more violent than OSP. Throughout CY 2015, for example, OSP reported eight incidents of inmate-on-inmate assaults and 55 incidents of inmate-on-staff assaults. Conversely, in the same reporting period, SOCF hosted 257 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 152 inmate-on-staff assaults. Though housing inmates of similar security classification and danger, SOCF saw nearly 500% more incidents of assault than OSP in the same time period. These glaring statistical differences can easily be explained: The majority of OSP’s inmate population are Level ERH, whereas the majority of SOCF’s inmate population are level 4. Between Level 4 and ERH exists a vast difference in privileges and comforts.

For example, in Level 4, such as some of SOCF’s population, inmates can expect to receive a $90 commissary spending limit, one ten-minute phone call per day, an unlimited number of visits from family members during set visiting hours, and one hour of recreation seven days per week. Conversely, for ERH inmates, such as those found at OSP, inmates can expect a $50 commissary spending limit, one monthly fifteen-minute phone call, two monthly two-and-a-half-hour, no-contact visits, and one hour of recreation five days per week.

As demonstrated in the preceding paragraph, the majority of SOCF inmates receive significantly more privileges and creature comforts than the majority of inmates within OSP. For OSP inmates, this means less time out of their cells, less interaction with other inmates, and less opportunity for disaster to strike. Though an outsider may believe that OSP’s inmates would harbor disdain for the reduced out-of-cell time and seclusion, many OSP inmates have stated to the contrary. According to responses from an open-ended survey given to OSP inmates, the following were responses of OSP inmates when asked, “What is one positive aspect of this prison?”:

  • You can stay to yourself for the most part.
  • You can get a lot of books and time to focus on learning stuff to better yourself.
  • I get to sit back in my cell and get my mind right.
  • Allows you to make your own choices before they make them for you.
  • The prison is locked down 23 and 1 so you are forced to use your mind.
  • It’s less people, and I’ve grown into a good person by educating myself and I love the single cells.
  • Easy to focus on positive things . . . [no] . . . drama.

Conversely, when the same question through the same forum was asked to SOCF inmates, many responded with simply “Nothing” or “None.” As seen from the responses of OSP inmates, many inmates in a more restrictive status appreciate the reduced distraction, reduction of potential for strife, and the ability to better oneself while incarcerated. As such, reducing the number of privileges and creature comforts available to SOCF inmates would encourage and assist inmates to have and maintain good behavior so that they can earn a re-classification to a lower-security institution, allowing them to receive recidivism-reducing educational and vocational programming and privileges.

A Clinician's perspective on MSF reform: rewards must also come with consequences

Law and the social sciences are no stranger to one another, as each lends to the other in the functioning of a well-assessed system. Leading literature in the intersection of law and psychology suggests that the current constitutional doctrine regarding MSFs fails to recognize the extent of psychological trauma that is inflicted by solitary confinement and placement in MSFs. Though this is the narrative that is popular within academic circles, it is not the only narrative, and more importantly, it is not a narrative that has been fostered by immersion into an Ohio MSF.

Within the workings of a human mind exist six developmental domains: physical, emotional, psychological, social, intellectual and moral. Though collectively contained within the biological mandate of humanity, these six domains do not all develop equally. Within any individual, especially an MSF inmate, any one of these six domains can be underdeveloped or can “fail to pass through certain critical development gates that” set the course one’s life ultimately follows.

Often in the case of an inmate who has reached their way to an MSF, there has been a pervasive inability to adopt the basic rules of society. Instead, MSF inmates incorporate a view of self and others that fails to care or fails to perceive the impact of behavior that violates social norms, rules and laws produced by their criminal behavior. In sum, in the absence of a moral code law-abiding citizens understand, “an amoral code predominates the persistent behavioral patterns commonly displayed” by inmates within an MSF.

This amoral code, or absence of morality, stands directly in opposition to the goal of ODRC in that the reduction of recidivism cannot occur. Within these types of inmates, predominantly found in MSFs, there exists an “invincible personality that will not be altered in their antisocial view.” As such, these inmates will continue on a path that stands in opposition to ODRC and the benefit of society. However, not all MSF inmates possess this antisocial view resistant to efforts of rehabilitation and instead simply require development within the moral domain.

In the view of SOCF’s clinical director, several things are needed to facilitate development of the moral domain: "[E]ducation in what constitutes a healthy, mature adult humanity; immediate consequences for violations of those established norms . . . and reward for moral prosocial behavior. In other words, a tripartite model of moral education, i.e., immediate consequences for violations of the moral good and psychological processing in search of the faulty thinking and/or feeling that resulted in the [inmate’s] behavior choice(s)."

However, SOCF’s clinical director notes that for this model of “moral formation/reformation” to function, both a punitive side and an aspect of reward must exist. For ODRC, the “reward” exists in the lowering of security level thereby awarding greater privileges and access to educational and vocational resources. The punitive side, conversely, manifests in an immediate disciplinary action in response to a violation by an inmate. Connecting both consequence and reward, a practice long supported by psychological research, will result in the reduction of recidivism within ODRC, especially within a maximum-security setting.

As discussed in previous sections, ODRC MSF inmates are lulled into complacency and relative ease through the receipt of creature comforts and privileges extending far beyond those required by the Constitution, legislature and the courts. As a result, the model described by SOCF’s clinical director cannot be achieved. Though the 3-Tier System and its security classifications seek to serve as a system of consequence and reward, there is not a compelling consequence in being placed into a facility with large commissary spending limits, ping-pong tournaments, significant out-of-cell time, personal televisions, and being provided with a state-issued WiFi-enabled tablet capable of downloading music and calling friends and family at any time.

Conclusion

The answer is not easy, nor is it easy to implement. However, ODRC, charged with rehabilitating Ohio’s offenders and reducing the recidivism of our shared community, is approaching a crucial decision point. ODRC must decide whether to continue placating its MSF population through vast creature comforts and privileges, or utilize its authority and constitutional bounds to make its MSFs undesirable confinements. In doing so, it is assessed that Ohio’s MSF population, with its comforts and privileges reduced to constitutional minimums, will be properly motivated to adhere to departmental rules and regulations.

By ODRC’s tier system design, upon proper behavior, inmates will be reclassified to lower-security institutions, where comforts and privileges shall be permitted. Even more importantly, inmates will be provided with greater educational and vocational programming. It is not the televisions, recreational activities, or commissary allowances that will prepare Ohio’s inmate population for reintegration into society. Successful reintegration is achieved through proper programming, treatment, and skill-building not suitable for implementation in an MSF environment based on the behavior and comportment of the inmates.

Like all states, Ohio will always be home to inmates who consistently choose violence, rule-breaking and outright refusal to adhere to societal standards. For these obstinate MSF inmates, it is not only counterintuitive, but insulting, to the law-abiding Ohioan to allow these types of inmates to exist in such comfort within MSFs. Without ODRC utilizing its vast deference in restricting the freedoms, comforts and privileges currently given to MSF inmates, the system will continue to fail its employees, inmates and society at large.

Get the full report:

Maximum Security, Minimal Appreciation by PG Edi on Scribd

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