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STAR corrections facility responds to ex-employees' charges

More than three dozen staffers have left; former employees raise serious questions about administration of Nelsonville facility

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Philabaun

Charles E. Philabaun III, executive director of STAR Community Justice Center (with its main campus in Scioto County), speaks about changes made to the former SEPTA Correctional Facility (now called STAR East by facility administrators) inside one of that facility’s dormitories earlier this year. Photo by Conor Morris.

It’s been more than a year since STAR Community Justice Center took over stewardship of the former SEPTA Correctional Center in Nelsonville. That year has seen significant employee turnover as well as allegations from former employees of mismanagement and other problems.

The community-based correctional facility (aka CBCF) in Nelsonville – now called STAR East by the facility’s administrators – as of early February 2019 had seen roughly 40 staffers leave the facility since STAR’s administration arrived in early 2018. Roughly 20 of them were formally terminated, out of a facility with roughly 35 to 40 or so employees typically.

The NEWS has spoken to four former employees of the facility who said they either were fired or forced out, with little reason given, after they had raised questions about the facility’s operations and working environment. 

Facility administrators staunchly defended the facility’s operations in an interview in February and in emails since then.

SEPTA-STAR

This picture of the former SEPTA Correctional Facility – now called STAR East – shows the outside of the community-based correctional facility in Nelsonville in February of this year. Photo by Conor Morris.

Yet, the reported issues with staffing, among others, raise serious questions about the STAR Center’s administration, which is set to have a significant role in the new Appalachian Recovery Project jail-and-treatment facility to be located in the former Hocking Unit of the Southeastern Correctional Complex in Nelsonville. The prison complex was closed by the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in early 2018, taking 100-plus jobs with it.

STAR East houses male felony offenders who are sentenced there by a judge as part of the offender’s probation or judicial release terms.

In terms of the issues reported, the former employees  – among them social workers, guards and programming specialists – allege a host of problems. The NEWS is not naming these former employees because they said they fear for their ability to keep or find jobs, especially in other Ohio corrections facilities, if they speak out publicly.

Four former employees who spoke with The NEWS said they were required to perform construction work for several months last year while working at SEPTA Center (before it was called STAR East), ranging from tearing out drywall to pushing lockers over balconies to ripping up carpet, in some cases without proper protective gear provided to them. 

“For months, we did the physically demanding duties of painting the entire interior; we tore down walls (some with live wires), built whole new walls, tore up 30-year-old carpet, etc.,” one employee said. “I also don’t recall ever being offered any safety equipment, including face masks or eye safety glasses.”

One of the employees provided a copy of a video showing four employees picking up a set of lockers, hauling the unit over a second-floor railing and dropping it onto the floor with a loud crash. One of those four employees was not wearing any protective gear, and the video shows another employee walking into the frame seconds after the locker hits the ground, also not wearing any protective gear outside of gloves.

Facility administrators deny both the claim that the tasks performed by the employees could be considered “construction” work and the claim that employees weren’t provided with proper safety equipment.

STAR Executive Director Charles E. Philabaun III added during the interview in February that employees had to perform the work – instead of a construction company being hired – partly because all of the inmates must be moved away from the facility while the work is being done. 

“The main reason is, one, that it’d cost thousands and thousands of dollars (to hire a firm), and two it was either them (employees) pick up a paint brush or get laid off for three-and-a-half months because we didn’t have residents there, so there’s no way to earn a paycheck,” Philabaun said.

He insisted that employees were given safety equipment, adding that if he and other administrators had seen staff not wearing safety equipment, “we would have corrected it.”

Denise Carter-Brooks, a former employee at SEPTA who was fired by STAR administration in November 2018, maintained that it was “absolutely everyone” doing the construction work in terms of employees. Even worse, she alleged that facility administrators “magically graduated” some of the inmates from SEPTA right before the construction started, whether they had completed their programming or not. Some of the inmates, she acknowledged, apparently were transferred to STAR’s main facility in Franklin Furnace (Scioto County).

Still, another former employee said that the release happened so suddenly that some of the inmates who were released didn’t have rides back home, or even housing set up, prior to their release.

Another former employee raised concerns about the date that was chosen for that release: 4/20/2019.

“I thought it was kind of strange that they would release them on 4/20… that’s a strange date to pick for a release of the population that’s mainly drug offenders,” the employee said, referencing that date’s significance to some marijuana users.

Philabaun, Facility Managing Director Domonique Paige and HR Director James T. Holt all rejected those claims. No inmates were released prior to the facility work unless they “graduated successfully or were unsuccessfully discharged,” Philabaun said.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if STAR ever followed the proper approval process from the Ohio Department of Commerce before construction started in the SEPTA facility.

Philabaun said during the February interview that the work in question began at the beginning of May 2018. However, The NEWS requested a copy of the construction plan permit from the Ohio Department of Commerce, which STAR administration had applied for to complete the facility renovation. The permit wasn’t approved until several months later, on Oct. 25, 2018, after the work was basically already completed.

Philabaun during a tour of the facility pointed out multiple former offices at SEPTA where sections of drywall were torn down during the renovation to make classrooms. Two previous classrooms now provide space for seven, Philabaun said.

Still, Philabaun said he doesn’t think a building permit was needed from the Department of Commerce because there wasn’t any “addition to the existing structure,” just the tear-down of “some drywall.”

STAR’S ADMINISTRATION WAS brought in to manage the former SEPTA facility and to redesign SEPTA’s programming in early 2018, according to a memorandum of understanding signed in late January 2018 between the two facilities’ managements. This came after SEPTA had experienced its own problems, with multiple inmate escapes in recent years. According to the SEPTA facility’s annual reports obtained from the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the facility had nine inmates escape during the 2016-2017 fiscal year alone. 

The SEPTA facility also had its own challenges with staffing prior to STAR administration arriving, with a total of 20 people resigning from the SEPTA facility during that fiscal year, along with two terminations (that’s in a facility with 35 total staffers at the time). Still, that pales in comparison to the turnover since STAR took over the facility.

The NEWS was provided a copy of 19 dismissal notices issued to employees since STAR arrived. Of those notices, only two list a specific reason for the employee’s termination. Managing Director Paige had told The NEWS back in February that 23 total employees had been terminated (it’s not clear why she only provided 20 such notices - one of them was for a termination that happened in 2017 prior to STAR arriving).

Philabaun and Paige conceded that SEPTA’s turnover has been high, but said that many of the employees had a hard time transitioning to STAR’s new program model as it was implemented at SEPTA. Philabaun contended that some employees simply “walked off” the site.

That doesn’t jibe with what four former employees told The NEWS, including Carter-Brooks. She alleged that many of the employees were fired for “asking too many questions” about the facility’s operation. She characterized the former employees as people who cared deeply about the mission of community-based correctional facilities.

Independence bedrooms

The word “Independence” scores the entrance to the inmates’ bedroom area in one of the two wings at STAR East in Nelsonville (formerly called Septa Correctional Facility). Photo by Conor Morris.

DESPITE THE CONTROVERSY around STAR’s operation of the SEPTA facility, that mission still appeared to be intact when STAR administrators gave The NEWS a tour of the facilities earlier this year. Philabaun, Holt and Paige outlined an impressive number of services provided at the facility. (A significant body of research shows that sentencing offenders to a community-based correctional facility rather than time in a prison is more likely to reduce their recidivism rates and improve their lives.)

Some of the services outlined by the administrators include:

• Cognitive behavioral treatment and counseling. services, along with substance-abuse disorder treatment.

• Anger-management courses.

• Employability skills classes, including a parenting-skills class.

• An “after-care program” in which STAR staffers follow up with former offenders six months after they’re released. 

• Instructional services to help offenders get on their way to obtaining GED or other certifications.

SEPTA formerly offered a work-release program but Philabaun said in February that that program was suspended due to “security issues” related to the escapes in previous years (no one has escaped since STAR began managing the facility).

Philabaun said that much of STAR’s programming – both at the main STAR facility in Franklin Furnace and the Athens County facility – is about bringing structure back to a person’s life.

“You can’t just attack one person’s issues like substance abuse or their (problematic) thinking… We take a holistic approach,” Philabaun said. “A lot of these men and women we deal with, they don’t know how to (balance) a checkbook… Just the structure of getting up at 6 a.m., washing your hands, brushing your teeth, something that’s normal that we do, they don’t have that structure.”

In addition, the improvements made to the facility under STAR’s administration by any measure have improved the facility’s ability to provide programming to the men who are incarcerated there. The improvements included something as simple as the addition of privacy walls and curtains for the bathrooms and showers the men use.

Paige also said STAR plans to continue expanding programs at the former SEPTA facility, including potentially becoming a GED testing site (STAR in Franklin Furnace does have that capability).

DESPITE THOSE SUCCESSES, two of the former employees interviewed by The NEWS described the former SEPTA facility as a “hostile work environment” after STAR arrived.

“You weren’t allowed to question anything about them,” one former employee said, “or you would be terminated.”

That same employee said she eventually was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer because of the stress of working under constant threat of being fired for little or no reason.

“I was vomiting blood because I was under so much stress. I couldn’t eat, my hair was falling out, I was miserable all the time,” she said.

That same employee said she had chemical-induced asthma, and remembered having an asthma attack one day because of the solvent that employees were required to use while renovating the building.

“I had to walk out of the building because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “There were no helmets, no masks, no gloves; we were not given safety equipment at all.”

SOME OF THESE FORMER employees also raised concerns with a disciplinary practice used at the STAR East facility as recently as last fall under STAR administration. Some called this a “sit-in-posture” policy; others used the terms “level drop” and “phase drop.” They described the practice as a form of mass punishment where all the offenders in one area of the facility were forced to sit for hours on end with little or no programming.

One former inmate at the facility confirmed he went through that experience last fall. Kane Cody, Jr., of Lancaster, said at the time when he was at the facility, residents were forced to sit in chairs for upward of 16 hours a day on multiple occasions. Under this “phase drop” practice, he said, all of the inmates in his wing of the facility were punished in this manner each of those three times. During the “phase drop,” he added, no programming was held for the inmates.

“No talk, no sleep, no slouch, nothing, until it was time for showers and bed,” he said. “It was miserable; I hated it more than anything, and it definitely didn’t let me focus on my recovery from a drug addiction.”

One of the former employees said that at one point last fall the inmates were punished by being forced to sit in posture for upward of 16 hours a day for nearly 10 days in a row.

Philabaun said in a response to those allegations in late June that STAR does not implement any kind of punishment resembling the aforementioned practice.

“The only reason that residents would sit in chairs as a form of punishment as was mentioned to you is when there would be a threat to the security of the facility, i.e. multiple threats of physical violence to staff or residents, contraband found during facility searches, multiple rule violations in a particular house by multiple residents, etc.,” he said. “What we do in this situation is sit said residents down and re-teach the resident handbook which covers all the resident rules and regulations that each resident is required to follow while sentenced to STAR – Athens Campus (East). It usually takes a couple of days to re-teach the resident handbook, and the third day is used to have them role-play for staff what they were just taught so we know they internalized said information.”

Philabaun said he doesn’t consider this process a “punishment” so much as a “teachable moment” for offenders. 

EARLIER THIS SUMMER, in early-to-mid June, the former SEPTA facility also ran into issues with an outbreak of chickenpox.

When The NEWS asked STAR’s Philabaun about the incident, he said in a June 20 email that “there is not currently an outbreak of chickenpox or other disease. There were however a few cases of chickenpox over a week ago and said cases have been contained through proper medical care and procedures.”

However, Athens City-County Health Department Commissioner James Gaskell said in an interview around the same time that his agency treated a total of 10 cases of chickenpox at the facility, giving out a total of 26 chickenpox vaccines to staff and inmates. All of the cases were based in and around one wing of the facility, and Gaskell said that the inmates needed to be confined for five or six days so as to halt the spread of the disease. He said he hasn’t seen an outbreak of chickenpox at any jail or prison facilities in Athens County before but it’s not uncommon in institutional settings where people are confined together.

“…That’s where you’re most likely to see an outbreak of a disease like this, is people who are confined in close quarters,” Gaskell said. 

ANOTHER ISSUE THAT some of the former employees talked about arose when STAR administrators first arrived at the SEPTA facility early last year.

In a group meeting, Philabaun allegedly told the employees that a state investigation finding misappropriation of funds at the STAR facility in Franklin Furnace – released in early 2017 – was based on falsehoods.

That investigation – conducted by the Ohio Auditor of State’s office as a special audit – found that 11 STAR employees had misspent state and grant funds. The Auditor’s Office issued 14 “findings for recovery” totaling $20,090, with employees required to pay that back. One of those employees was Philabaun.

That investigation was kicked off after Philabaun was asked to sign a “representation letter” following the state’s May 2015 audit of the facility. That letter  “in part” is meant to have the state agency being investigated – in this case, STAR – confirm that it has notified the state Auditor of “any fraud or suspected fraud at the entity,” according to the audit report. 

“Mr. Philabaun contacted the (Auditor of State) to inform us that he could not sign the representation letter due to potential fraud committed by STAR’s former deputy director, Josh Saunders,” the audit reads. The audit notes that Saunders was terminated by STAR about a month before.

That allegation kicked off a lengthy investigation into spending at STAR. It found multiple instances where “STAR personnel were paid illegally, failed to follow internal procedures, and violated terms of a grant agreement with the ODRC (state corrections department).” The instances included spending on alcohol and tips at restaurants that were not allowed by STAR policy; certain lodging, meals and transportation expenses; false receipts created and submitted by Saunders and other personal expenditures by him; and expenditures paid with STAR’s “family fund” (which was collected for the purposes of employee gifts for weddings, Christmas gifts, etc.).

Philabaun himself was required to pay back several thousand dollars spent on meals, travel and lodging for himself and employees, including $210 on three golf outings for himself. The audit also found that Philabaun had granted himself roughly 10 days of administrative time off when he did not have the authority to do so, resulting in repayment of $3,818 to STAR. 

During the time period analyzed by the state Auditor, the audit found that Philabaun and Saunders both had used their STAR credit cards to pay for events for CorJus Inc., a nonprofit devoted to advocating on behalf of Ohio’s community-based correctional facilities. Philabaun was a trustee and Saunders was the treasurer for CorJus Inc.

Specifically, Saunders spent $3,056 in December 2014 with his STAR credit card to pay for a CorJus holiday party in Hilliard, Ohio, with $870 spent on food; $1,110 spent on alcoholic beverages; and “taxes and service charges” totaling $574. Saunders, Philabaun and multiple other STAR employees attended, and stayed overnight at a hotel paid with STAR funds, the audit reads. After the Christmas party, the state audit found, $170 in STAR funds were used at a “gentleman’s night club” near Columbus.

“BCI interviewed Mr. Saunders, and he acknowledged using his STAR credit card at a strip club in Columbus, OH,” the audit reads. “Mr. Saunders stated he was at the strip club with two other directors. We assisted BCI in an interview with (STAR employee John) Adkins, and he acknowledged that he was at the strip club with Mr. Saunders and a director from another facility. No receipts were submitted to STAR for these purchases.”

Philabaun and Holt, when asked about the state audit’s findings, noted that they are still employed at STAR despite the state audit findings. Saunders is not. Holt added that he submitted “hundreds” of pages of documents contesting some of the audit’s findings.

“…STAR wishes that the final report include explicit language regarding the pattern of deception and misconduct of former Deputy Director Josh Saunders,” Holt wrote in a letter summarizing that response to the state Auditor’s Office. “Mr. Saunders booked all travel, handled all travel expenses and arrangements for trips he attended, paid for meals he was present on his STAR credit card or the STAR credit card of another director, and collected personal money from STAR employees during multiple trips to cover alcohol expenses.”

Holt added in that letter that the administrative time off granted to Philabaun was justified because STAR directors like him work hundreds of hours of “on-call time” with no overtime given, which had saved the facility tens of thousands of dollars during Philabaun’s tenure alone.

Philabaun during the interview in February said that the facility has changed its reporting procedures and credit-card policies to ensure nothing like what transpired before will happen again.

“We definitely took care of the problem,” Philabaun said. “We’re the ones who self-reported it.”

Holt added that STAR has continued to expand at an “extreme rate” and has continued to be “extremely successful” in the years since the audit.

“And we’ve been given the responsibility of redesigning this facility and redesigning the Hocking Prison that shut down on the first floor over there,” Philabaun added.

Holt noted that SEPTA itself had some unfavorable audits in its past as well. An audit released in 2014 for the 2010-2012 period for SEPTA listed several findings for recovery for former SEPTA employees, including $1,341 against one employee for being overpaid; a lack of documentation for a significant amount of spending records and severe issues with the facility’s accounting systems; and errors in the budgeting process that meant expenses and revenues were not properly recorded.

MEANWHILE, A MEMBER of the task force devoted to developing programming for the former Hocking Correctional Facility prison said late last week that the plan for that facility is moving forward with STAR Community Justice Center occupying the bottom floor of that facility, providing drug treatment, rehabilitation and job training services for female offenders. The former prison – once renovated – will be called the Appalachian Recovery Project (ARP).

The NEWS previously reported that the Hocking County Sheriff’s Office is involved in a separate effort to renovate the second and third floors of that former prison in Nelsonville to be available as jail space for female misdemeanor and felony offenders. Renovation of the entire facility should be completed by sometime next spring.

Rick Hodges, executive in residence for Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, said last week that community health workers are currently being trained to provide similar services through a “satellite location” at STAR East in Nelsonville in the coming months, in preparation for the female-offender program inhabiting its new facility at the former prison.

One former employee said she’s concerned about STAR’s administrators running the new ARP facility. 

“How could they possibly staff a new facility when they can’t keep a much smaller one staffed?” she said. “It’s concerning that they are being approved for another location when they clearly have issues with being ethical.”

She noted that when STAR first took over at the former SEPTA facility, Philabaun allegedly tried to reassure the employees that they would be able to keep their jobs. 

“I could understand five people not fitting in with their ‘redesign,’” the employee said. “But soon there were 10 people fired, then 15… 20… 25… then 30, and on and on. That’s over 30 families losing their income. That’s over 30 people from our community whose financial stability was taken, without batting an eye… It’s also not in the residents’ best interest to have this kind of turnover rate.”

Philabaun had told The NEWS that while he isn’t happy with the turnover rate, he said he saw a similar thing happen years ago, with scores of employees leaving when STAR implemented its cognitive-behavioral treatment model at its original facility.

“STAR has a certain philosophy, and some staff couldn’t get on with our philosophy,” he said. 

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