Members of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA) from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville lined the road in front the prison Wednesday, the first day of a picket to protest unsafe working conditions. The protest started at 6 a.m. and lasted until 4 p.m. stressed a rise in violence in the maximum-security prison and drug use—especially opioid use, making the job of correction officers more dangerous than ever. OCSEA further cited an issue with understaffing.
“[M]anagers have dealt with understaffing by attempting to end-run the union contract, while mandatory overtime remains a security risk causing officers to become fatigued and less effective,” a release from OCSEA stated.
OCSEA represents approximately 30,000 state employees who work in a wide range of security, regulatory, administrative, direct care, maintenance, customer service and other positions, including 8,600 who work in the Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Corrections Sgt. Mike Dillow explained that he has been a sergeant for five years and an officer for more than 22 years. He stated that the current situation has resulted from a combination of dangerous issues. According to Dillow and other corrections officers picketing Monday, the prison has become unsafe because of drugs, overpopulation and staff issues.
“One of the problems we have here is the drug problem,” Dillow began to explain. “Every institution in the state has a drug problem, but here we’ve always had a drug problem and numbers have increased.The amount of drugs being brought in is off the charts. It’s more than I’ve seen it in 20 years. When you have that, it becomes an unsafe work environment.”
Dillow explained that the maximum security prison already houses very dangerous inmates. In fact, the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative watchdog agency for prisons, has ranked SOCF among the most violent prisons in the state as a result of hundreds of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff attacks, a problem that is certainly not unseen among the officers working the facility.
“Here we deal with some of the most violent offenders in the State of Ohio,” Dillow stated. “When you take that and combine it with inmates taking drugs, they become a little more aggressive on drugs. It makes our jobs harder. Some guys we can’t handle one-on-one. It may take two-on-one or even five-on-one. Then you have officers that are tired, maybe froze over, and have to deal with a violent offenders who may also be on drugs. That creates a ticking time bomb and makes the a situation that is very unsafe. I don’t really think you can ever get rid of the drug problem, but there are ways to reduce it. We need more staff. If you had more staff in here, we could clean it up a bit. We need to do some clearouts — bring in a response team to clear it out, which we don’t hardly do anymore. The drugs come in from the mailroom and visitors sneaking it in. These inmates are smart. They know how to get it in here. They have all day long all their lives to learn how to get it in here.”
He added that more staffing would allow the prison to be more thorough in inspecting for contraband.
“Our main thing is safety. We just want to go home at the end of the day,” he concluded.
Corrections Sgt. Nick Branson, who has been with the prison 24 years and agreed that the drug problem is unlike he has ever seen it.
“There has always been some sort of drug problem here and there, but it is now at an all-time high,” Branson commented.
Branson stated that the only reason he can see for the increase is the increase in drug availability overall in the public.
“Suboxone’s our biggest problem, and it’s so easy to get in here. They put it in their postage stamps,” he explained. “K2 spice (commonly known as synthetic cannabis or fake weed) is another big one. They soak paper in the oil and will mail the letters in. They guys will chew the paper up and get high.”
Branson says this creates a “volatile work environment” and assures that the issues have progressed to the extent that he says the prison will exceed the number of violent instances and drug problems that the facility had last year.
“Right now we’re at least 30 officers short. That’s just counting officers, not other departments. That may not sound like a lot, but when you figure only 80 work a shift, 30 is a lot.”
Sally Meckling, communications director for OCSEA, explained that understaffing is a statewide issue among Ohio’s prisons currently.
“I think everyone knows that overstaffing is an issue in Ohio’s prisons,” she added. “But I think the less told story is that we are understaffed, and we are understaffed is almost every Ohio prison. But, when you are understaffed in a prison like Lucasville, where the inmates are the worst of the worst, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”
Meckling directly tied the drug problem in Lucasville with the drug problem in Ohio.
“We have a very significant opioid problem in Southern Ohio and throughout all of Ohio really,” she commented. “Ohio is one of the worst in the nation for heroin overdoses. Those figures are represented in our prisons too. In Lucasville, it looks like they’re on track to double the number of drug instances this year in comparison with last year. You’ve got people who are more aggressive. We are overcrowded, understaffed and now we have inmates who are drug addicted. There are documented more inmate fights among each other. They are more aggressive, requiring more officers to intervene.”
The union is now increasing efforts to get the attention of prison administration, demanding that the issues be heard.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about for a long time now but we feel is coming to a head is that we need more boots on the ground,” Meckling commented. “There’s no other way to do it.”
She stated that communications with prison administration have been ongoing.
“I think that they absolutely understand that we are overcrowded, but the message they are not hearing is that we are understaffed on top of that,” she stated.
Efforts were made to get comments from the Warden’s office. As of press time, no comments were available.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.