Lockdown Shutdown?

Corrections Corporation of America’s prison in Youngstown, Ohio, has seen prisoner killings and escapes — and soon, the for-profit lockdown may have no prisoners at all.

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Once famously plagued by violence and escapes, an Ohio prison owned by America’s largest operator of for-profit lockups now faces a new problem: it may soon have no prisoners.

Corrections Corporation of America’s 2,016-bed facility in Youngstown, Ohio currently houses overflow inmates from Washington, D.C. But the federal Bureau of Prisons is taking charge of the capital’s prison system and has announced plans to move all the Youngstown inmates to other facilities by August.

That leaves CCA with two options: find a new contract, or sell the prison. Neither is likely to be easy, given the facility’s troubled history (see the Mother Jones story, “Steel Town Lockdown”). Opened in May 1997, the prison was supposed to house only medium-security inmates, but CCA brought in some of D.C.’s most dangerous cons to help keep its beds filled. As a result, the facility saw 20 stabbings and two killings in its first year, and an escape by six inmates — including five convicted murderers — the next. An ensuing lawsuit forced CCA to send back the maximum-security inmates and boost safety provisions.

Faced with the possible loss of some 500 local jobs — a major concern in the rusting steel town — Youngstown’s mayor, once a a bitter critic of the prison, has turned into one of its biggest boosters. After the 1998 escapes, Mayor George McKelvey told reporters, “Knowing what I know now, I would never have allowed CCA to build a prison here.” Now, he says he’ll do everything he can to keep it open. With the most violent prisoners back in DC, says McKelvey, “it’s as quiet as a church over there.”

McKelvey told The Vindicator, a local newspaper, in early May that he’s willing to grant CCA some leeway in the allowable classification of prisoners they would accept. That could mean accepting “high medium-security” prisoners, said McKelvey, a higher level than the facility currently accepts.

That disturbs critics like Al Gerhardstein, an attorney who brought the 1999 lawsuit against CCA. “The real question is, is the mayor willing to keep the place open to save some jobs at the expense of the security measures that made it a safe prison?”

Adds state senator Bob Hagan, who sponsored a successful bill to empower McKelvey to amend CCA’s contract: “It took two murders and 20 stabbings to convince the state to pass my legislation. Now McKelvey wants to change the classification of prisoners. We can’t afford to go through that again.”

Ohio Governor Bob Taft, meanwhile, has asked the federal government to buy the facility, a move he says could help alleviate crowding in federal prisons, sustain local jobs, and help pull CCA out of its billion-dollar debt. CCA is considering this, but says pursuing new clients takes precedence. “We’re hoping for another go at it in Youngstown,” says CCA spokesperson Steve Owen.

Hagan is hoping they don’t get the chance. “It’s like a monster that won’t go away,” he says. “I know Youngstown needs the jobs. A federal prison will supply jobs just the same. CCA had their chance, and they proved it’s not sustainable for a small town to rely on a private prison economy.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate