Paul McKibben reports:
When the new Warren County racino opens in Turtlecreek Township in 2014, its closest neighbor will be the state’s most unusual prison.
The Lebanon Correctional Institute, near a busy Interstate 75 interchange (Exit 29), is one of 10 Ohio working prison farms. It is home to nearly 800 head of cattle that roam some 1,700 acres of rolling hills along Ohio 63. Its caretakers are minimum-security inmates.
The prison also manufactures license plates and validation stickers for every motorist in Ohio. That work is part of the Ohio Penal Industries, a self-sufficient agency within the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction that manufactures goods such as furniture. Any government or nonprofit agency can buy the goods.
In another unique program, inmates crochet baby blankets and other items for a Dayton veterans hospital.
“I’m trying to raise my kids from here,” said LCI inmate Larry Chapman, 39, of Springfield Township, a convicted drug dealer serving an 11-year-sentence.
Chapman has four children ages 7-13 and works in the prison’s recycling program. “How am I going to tell them to go get a job when I don’t have one?”
In February, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced the state’s offender recidivism rate was at a record low, with 28.7 percent of inmates returning to prison after release. The national average is about 43 percent.
LCI Warden Ernie Moore said more than 90 percent of inmates eventually return to Ohio communities. He said it’s the department’s “responsibility to make sure that when we release somebody from prison that we‘re releasing a better person than what came in.” He said one of the ways that’s accomplished is through programming such as vocations and community service.
Moore said his goal is to allow every inmate to have a job, although some don’t work because of medical conditions. Inmates work on average 33 hours a week, earning about 13 cents a hour. He said inmates who work for Ohio Penal Industries can earn as much as $70 a month or 54 cents a hour. Of LCI’s 2,600 inmates, about 2,210, or 85 percent, have jobs.
“We try to give inmates job opportunities based on their behavior,” Moore said. “If they aren’t behaving or aren’t following the rules of the facility, it’s unlikely that they’re going to a get that opportunity.”
Inmates must apply for jobs. Among considerations are disciplinary history and skill level. Only minimum-security inmates can work at the dairy farm, which employs about 50.
At the farm, crops are grown to feed the cows. Last year, those cows produced 258,000 gallons of milk.
Milk processed at the Pickaway Correctional Institution, near Columbus, feeds all of Ohio’s prison inmates. Beef cows are sent to feed lots at other Ohio prisons to be fattened, then sent to Pickaway for processing. The beef also feed inmates throughout the state.
Five years ago, the prison started its Real Men Crochet program, where inmates make afghans, hats, scarves, baby booties and baby blankets for a veterans hospital in Dayton. Inmates also use plastic shopping bags to make mats for the homeless or children to use during reading time.
LCI has an optional community service area where inmates do a variety of projects. Most of the community service work is done in inmate cells. Moore said community organizations provide the raw materials. For example, inmates use paper from the nonprofit educational supplies organization Crayons to Computers to make flash cards and games.
Shawn Bushway, a professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, said the national recidivism rate is about 20 percent lower among inmates who successfully participate in work programs. He said work programs help manage a prison by providing incentives for good behavior.
“People who successfully graduate from these programs are, in fact, lower risk,” Bushway said. “Employers and other people know that.”
Inmates say the work is better than sitting. They hope to use the skills they learn after they’re released.
Inmate Bryan Jones, 31, of Dayton said working on the farm has taught him discipline. LCI inmate and farmhand Brandon Lattire, 21, of Lebanon wants to pursue heavy equipment operating at the Warren County Career Center when he’s released next year. He’s a 2009 Lakota East graduate.
Lattire, who is serving a four-year-sentence for burglary and theft, said he’s “concerned about how my record will affect being able to get a job but I’m hoping that my willingness to learn will overcome that.”
Amy Davis, a Turtlecreek Township farmer and real estate agent, farms corn and soybeans on nearby land. She has no concerns about the prison farm.
“I look at it more from the standpoint of the people who are able to be out and working the land, working with the animals,” she said. “That must be a positive thing for them.’’