Dayton prison adjusting to violent women

Violence by inmates against staff and other convicts, and the use of force against inmates by guards, spiked dramatically after Dayton Correctional Institution switched from an all-male to an all-female prison in October 2011, according to a study by the state legislature’s prison watchdog group.

That’s because the state prison at 4104 Germantown Street — which formerly housed men with low security ratings and little time left to serve on their sentences — now is home to women running the gamut from minimum security to maximum security, including many who committed violent crimes, face long sentences and have little to lose by breaking the rules, prison officials say.

But the report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee projected the number of assaults will decline this year because of violence-reduction efforts being undertaken at the prison, which has inmates from across the state.

“I thought it was a very thorough and fair report,” said Warden Jeff Lisath. “It showed we do a lot of good things but we have a lot of room for improvement.”

Based on an unannounced inspection in July, the report issued last week showed:

* Assaults by inmates on staff and other inmates “increased significantly” between 2010, the prison’s last full year with male inmates, and 2012.

* The rate of fights in the prison went up by almost 100 percent between 2011 and 2012.

* Instances of use of force soared by 443 percent between 2010 and 2012, and the use of mace rose considerably. Lisath said the use of force often was required to break up fights.

* Inmates reported in focus groups that “the great majority of officers are professional and treat the population with respect.” The prison also got good marks for medical care, fiscal accountability, cleanliness and educational, vocational and re-entry programming.

The report found that assaults rocketed from eight in 2010 to 51 in 2012, though only two were reported so far in 2013. Lisath said assaults exclude routine fights between inmates.

“The facility has faced some challenges, particularly with the transition from a low security male population to a female population, including the high security women, but it appears to have weathered them well,” said Joanne Saul, executive director of the committee.

“Negatively, as a result of the transition, DCI has experienced a drastic increase in assaults, fights, and uses of force. Positively, it is the first institution this year to be rated ‘exceptional’ in medical services and reentry planning, both of which are particularly key for women.”

For nearly three decades, the inmate population at Dayton Correctional Institution was capped at 500 by a 99-year lease signed in 1982 by city and state officials. Because of the lease, DCI and a neighboring prison, Montgomery Education and Pre-Release Center, held a total of 850 male inmates, one man per cell, in 2011. They were the only prisons in the state that weren’t crowded beyond their design capacity.

But in 2011, amid a state budget crisis, state officials said they needed to change the lease and increase the number of inmates or close the prisons because Dayton’s per diem costs were so far above other prisons. Ultimately, the lease was renegotiated to allow the state to house 960 inmates, two to a cell, at DCI and close the pre-release center. At the time, the state argued that women inmates would be less disruptive than the men. The state has maintained the same number of guards, 260, as the two male prisons.

DCI, however, is unique among state prisons in housing female inmates with security classifications of minimum, medium, close and maximum. The former men’s prisons held only minimum- and medium-security inmates. Close- and maximum-security offenders at DCI are segregated in a “control unit” where their movements are limited.

Lisath said that control unit wasn’t fully operational at first, and it took some time for prison staff to become acclimated to the new population.

“I think after the first year, staff learned female offenders can fight just like male offenders,” he said.

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville, once the state’s only women’s prison, has seen a 30 percent decrease in rules infractions since the more violent women were moved to Dayton. A third prison, the Northeast Reintegration Center, houses low-security women who are soon to be released.

Lisath said DCI draws from counties across the state, but among the 301 low-level inmates set for release within a year, 24 percent come from Hamilton County, about 15 percent come from Montgomery County, 10 percent are from Butler County and 3 percent each come from Clark, Greene and Warren counties. DCI has 169 close- and maximum-security inmates.

Unique among Ohio wardens, Lisath conducts exit interviews with inmates who have finished their terms. While Lisath hears complaints — “they’re very candid in their responses” — he said he needs to hear what they have to say so he can improve the prison and help offenders successfully return to society and stay out of trouble.

“We’re here to do what we say we’re going to do: transform lives and get them back into the community without recidivating,” he said.

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