Hocking Unit front gate - prison

This photo, provided by the ODRC, shows the front gate of the Hocking Unit of Southeastern Corrections Complex, near Nelsonville.

Nelsonville officials and state Rep. Jay Edwards raised the alarm last week after the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced the closure of the Southeastern Correctional Complex’s Hocking Unit, just outside Nelsonville city limits.

Edwards, R-Nelsonville, went even further over the weekend, charging that the ODRC “lied” to him about the fact that the department was considering closing the prison when he asked ODRC Director Gary Mohr about rumors he’d heard from Hocking Unit employees about the facility being closed.

Edwards said Mohr told him in that conversation, which occurred a few months ago, that all Ohio prisons were being assessed and had the potential to be closed, and no final decisions had been made. He said Mohr also told him that he would be a part of any conversations about the facility closing, and that didn’t happen, according to the state representative.

The ODRC didn’t immediately respond to a request for a response to Edwards’ claims sent Sunday morning.

A fact sheet provided by ODRC spokesperson Grant Doepel last week called the minimum-security prison facility “outdated” and the “single-most expensive facility to operate in the state.” The sheet states that the facility will close in March 2018, and its 430 inmates and 110 employees will be shifted to other corrections facilities in Ohio.

However, the prison is also one of the largest employers in the Nelsonville area, which is one of Ohio’s poorer areas (with a 40 percent poverty rate among Nelsonville residents, according to U.S. Census data).

Edwards sent a letter to ODRC Director Mohr Wednesday afternoon last week expressing his “extreme disappointment” with the decision to close the facility. (Southeastern Correctional Complex’s main facility is in Lancaster.)

“This short-sighted decision has blindsided many in the Hocking Valley, who deserve better from their state government,” Edwards wrote. “Rather than pulling the rug out from under the families of this area, I am requesting that you immediately halt any efforts to close this facility and instead invest that time and energy in working with myself and my community to address any issues you believe exist that warrant closure of this facility.”

Edwards added in his letter that with a new Ohio governor taking office in January 2019, he believes it’s “only fair” to give the new governor an opportunity to keep the facility “viable” in order to “protect local jobs.”

Ed Mash, Nelsonville City Council’s president, said Thursday morning that it “would have been nice” if the state had involved Nelsonville city leadership, like City Council or the city manager, in the decision to close the facility.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but 110 (jobs) is a lot… in this town,” Mash said of Nelsonville (pop: 5,299). “It’s still a loss to this area, and it is going to affect this town; it’s going to affect everyone.”

The ODRC release notes that all employees at the Hocking Unit can continue to work for the department at one of its “other facilities, such as the SECC’s Lancaster Unit.” Mash said that while some employees may stay in Nelsonville and commute to Lancaster, others likely will be forced to leave town, taking with them much-needed local tax dollars. Meanwhile, the roughly $300,000-$350,000 per year the state pays the city of Nelsonville for sewer and water services to the complex will evaporate, Mash said.

Even outside of that, the exodus of the Hocking Unit’s employees will mean fewer customers for Nelsonville businesses.

“They buy their lunches in town and have it brought up (to the facility); they stop and get coffee; they consume a lot of products here in town,” Mash said.

Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union that represents the Southeastern Correctional Complex’s employees, called the closure “disheartening” in a statement last week.

“That’s 110 jobs in an area that can’t afford to lose 110 jobs,” Mabe said.

Mash himself was an employee of the facility, having retired about four years ago after 30 years of working there. He said the employees he’s talked to are “heartbroken” as they plan their next steps.

According to the ODRC release, the Hocking Unit costs $65 per inmate per day to operate, compared to $21 per inmate per day at “similar facilities.” The ODRC argued in the release that recent state investments in treatment services for low-level offenders have meant a decline in the prison population in Ohio (the current population is about 49,517, about 900 fewer inmates than a year ago).

“The Hocking Unit costs approximately $11.5 million annually for its 430 inmates and 110 staff,” the ODRC fact sheet reads. “Comparable-sized facilities in Richland, Belmont and Trumbull counties cost approximately $3 million annually.”

Mash, however, said that the relatively high cost of operating the Hocking Unit is partly because most of the inmates are older and therefore the state needs to spend more money on medical treatment.

“Even when I worked there, our costs were always higher; the clientele we had in there, most of them were sickly,” he said.

Mash said in a follow-up interview Sunday that “those costs will go with the inmates,” arguing that the ODRC’s decision was shortsighted in that regard.

“And the quality of care (those inmates receive) will suffer,” Mash predicted.

Edwards said that he hadn’t talked to the OSCEA union about the prison closing until the day of the ODRC announcement last week.

Mash explained that one of the difficulties with investigating rumors of the prison’s closure is that rumors have swirled for “years” that the facility would be closed, including in the last three years.

NELSONVILLE CITY COUNCIL member Taylor Sappington told The NEWS earlier Thursday that the one word the ODRC should use to describe the closure of the Hocking Unit is “devastation.” Sappington earlier last month announced his intent to run for the 94th Ohio House seat occupied by Edwards.

“Seems like even after all the ‘change’ in the last elections, the business of kneecapping SE Ohio, its workers and economy is still booming,” Sappington said. “We will soon lose major investment, income, revenues, jobs and more. It seems like these folks in Columbus come up with a new way to take every year. We’ve seen this game before in Nelsonville, though. The state cuts, fakes some anger, and hopes we forget come election time. We need a lot less talk on this issue and a heck of a lot more backup and investment.”

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