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OHIO PRISON INSPECTOR: 'No one is looking out for your son or daughter in prison'

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices

Posted on Jun 06, 2016

Ohio’s prison watchdog has been muzzled by the legislature, and some say the public will suffer because of it.

Joanna Saul, executive director of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, was forced to resign during a late-night legislative session on May 25 after tangling on several previous occasions with Republicans who control the legislature and with Gov. John Kasich’s administration. Now, the future of the inspection committee is in limbo.

Saul says she was doing her job as a watchdog over the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which has a $1.5 billion annual budget. Her involvement ranged from going after a vendor when maggots were found in prison food to challenging practices at a privatized prison plagued by gangs and drugs.

GOP leaders say she displayed “insubordination and rogue behavior,” attempting to exert power she did not legally possess.

The conflict affects all Ohioans, not just the 50,000 in state prisons and their families.

The inspection agency was “Ohio’s best protection against a federal lawsuit regarding prison conditions,” said Ohio Public Defender Tim Young. “It seems ill-advised to abolish the only agency charged with monitoring conditions in adult and youth facilities.

“Ohio’s prison population continues to grow, with an estimated all-time high coming this summer. It is vital to the safety of prison employees and inmates that the institutions are inspected regularly, and potential problems identified and addressed as early as possible.”

Mike Brickner of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said, “The agency raised the red flag about what was going on in Ohio prisons.”

But Saul’s forced departure means that “lawmakers have basically sent the message: If you ask too many questions, if you advocate too forcefully for prisoners, your job could be on the line,” Brickner said.

Prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the agency “has always (complied) and will always comply with regulatory oversight panels in a transparent manner consistent with state and federal privacy laws. How the legislature wishes to structure that oversight is their purview.”

A history of friction

Saul, 33, a graduate of Georgetown University Law School, had worked for the inspection committee, a bipartisan legislative panel, for about two years when friction developed with Republican state legislators.

The inspection committee, established in 1977 to provide a legislative check and balance on the prison department — then, as now, controlled by a Republican administration — initially mainly fielded complaints from inmates and their families and tried to resolve them.

Over time, especially under Saul’s leadership beginning in 2010, the inspection committee became more aggressive, not only handling complaints and inspecting prisons but also regularly issuing reports on topics such as prison staffing, inmate violence, drugs and gangs.

Saul stepped on toes when her reports focused on hot-button issues: violence in a private state prison, a backlog of county jail inspections, and problems with the state’s privatized food contract for prisons.

Much of the friction involved Sen. Keith Faber, a Republican from Celina who became Senate president in 2013. Even before taking over the top Senate post, Faber objected to Saul’s offer in 2012 for her agency to help inspect county and city jails, a mandated job mostly going undone by state prison employees because of budget constraints and other responsibilities.

Saul backed down after receiving a sharply worded warning letter from Faber, who was not a member of the inspection committee. He told Saul that she was not authorized and did not have funding to inspect jails. Doing so was “impractically duplicative” of the work of the prisons department, he said in the letter.

In 2013, Saul again touched a nerve when she wrote a critical report about the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, which had been privatized at the urging of the legislature. The report said the prison, run by Corrections Corp. of America, was plagued by safety and security problems and illegal drugs.

“Assaults, fights, disturbances and uses of force have all increased in comparison to prior years. There is a high presence of gang activity and illegal-substance use. Inmates reported frequent extortion and theft,” the report said.

Since then, Lake Erie has made great improvements and is considered one of the best-run prisons in the state.

A year later, Saul tangled with then-Sen. Shirley Smith, D-Cleveland, chairwoman of the inspection committee, about reports critical of Aramark Correctional Services, the private company hired by Kasich’s administration to provide food service to prisoners. The company was plagued by a number of issues, including maggots in food and employees being fired by the dozens, many for having inappropriate relationships with inmates. The state fined Aramark $272,000 for violations.

“Frankly, that’s part of a larger problem here,” Senate spokesman John Fortney said Friday. “You had a legislative employee making her own interpretation of the law and acting beyond the authority given to her by the committee, as well as being unresponsive and unaccountable to the committee chairs. The past two bipartisan chairs, a Democrat and a Republican, both expressed multiple concerns about the director’s insubordination and rogue behavior. ... We don’t have legislative agencies that are independent, including the CIIC.”

When Sen. Smith and Saul disagreed about an Aramark report, Smith accused her of insubordination and suspended her from her job. After The Dispatch wrote about her suspension, Smith reconsidered and reinstated Saul.

After Smith left the Senate, Kasich gave the Democrat a seat on the state Parole Board.

Prison officials clam up

The final clash occurred last fall when state prison officials, after nearly four decades of providing information to the inspection committee, abruptly shut off the flow of records.

The officials refused to answer questions about wide-ranging tropics, including the use of force by corrections officers on inmates, inmates involved in disturbances and inmates who had been sexually assaulted. The department even refused to respond when asked, “List the top three to five positive points about your institution that you want to have included in the inspection report.” Agency attorneys called the question “vague and ambiguous.”

About the same time last fall, the Ohio public defender’s office, which represents inmates, also began hitting obstacles when requesting prison records. Now, all records sought by public defenders must be vetted through the prison department’s public-relations office rather than being provided directly by administrative workers.

Saul informed legislators on the inspection committee and officials with outside agencies that she had been instructed that the group was to do only inspections and was no longer an “oversight” agency for adult and juvenile prisons.

The records shutdown was confirmed in a May 6 email to the inspection committee from Trevor Clark, assistant chief counsel for the prison department. The department also banned prison staff members from talking to the inspection committee’s staff, another first in agency history.

“What do I tell the inmate who says, ‘I’m dying from cancer, and they won’t help me’? Sorry for your luck? My conscience wouldn’t allow me to do that,” Saul said in an interview.

The prison department’s Smith said, “DRC is not permitted to provide access to inmate medical records to the CIIC or any other person or organization not authorized by current Ohio law.”

End of the agency

It is unclear who gave the order to jettison Saul and the inspection committee, but the effort surfaced without notice May 24 in the House Finance Committee on a list with 20 other proposed amendments. Saul got word via text messages from legislators that her agency, and her job, were about to be abolished. A new agency would have far less authority and be controlled by the legislative majority instead of being bipartisan.

The Dispatch exposed the 11th-hour maneuver on May 25. GOP leaders slowed the process and retreated to private discussions.

The Senate ground to a halt for several minutes while Mark Flanders, executive director of the Legislative Service Commission, communicated with Saul. She submitted her resignation late that night, effective on July 26. She is on paid leave from the $65,833-a-year job until then.

In the end, Republicans agreed to keep the agency mostly intact, but only if Saul resigned.

In the House, Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, spoke and voted against changes in the inspection committee.

“We need that kind of independent watchdog who is going to be able to withstand political pressure,” Phillips said. “It keeps an eye on how a great deal of tax money is being spent. It is important for the safety of the staff, the inmates and the general public.

“Any director in the future is going to be looking over their shoulder to make sure they are still going to have a job when what they need to be doing is concentrating on doing their job.”

Faber complained about Saul after the May 25 session, accusing her of having “a history of being grossly insubordinate.”

“To me, this wasn’t just about Joanna Saul. It was about a staff person who believed they’re above the members and above the institution.”

Saul agrees with Faber’s assessment that it wasn’t about her.

“The CIIC is more important than me,” she said. “I’m just a blip.”

Dispatch Reporter Jim Siegel contributed to this story.

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