Commentary

08.11.15

Use of Force in Ohio’s Prisons

By

Prison Fence

When we think of the term “use of force,” we usually think of police officers applying force in cases of imminent danger posed to themselves or the public. Force also applies to the work of corrections officers and security staff when interacting in situations in which prisoners pose risks to others in the prison environment.

Prisons often are thought of as places for violent and dangerous criminals and where using force may be sometimes necessary for compliance or quelling dangerous situations. However, we also know that prisons have become warehouses for the poor, mentally ill, people of color, and non-violent prisoners, who are victims of a shattered criminal justice system.

In a recent report issued by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, the use of force in Ohio prisons decreased by 16.4 percent from 2010-2014. That’s the good news. However, the report also cited troubling information regarding the reporting of use of force incidents. Additionally, how prisoners are initially classified when entering incarceration also creates problems.

Incarceration Classification

In Ohio, prisoners are classified according to security level, with level 1 being the lowest and level 5, the highest. All new individuals are initially given the classification of level 3 security until a formal reception process and review is completed. The review takes into account factors, such as the seriousness of the crime, prior offenses, most recent violence, and gang activity. Moreover, the connotation of level 3 seemingly implies that prisoners are dangerous enough to be attempt to harm if compelled to, while not the being the worst-of-the-worst in prison.

Read the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections policies on the use of force in Ohio’s prisons.

With the inequities in the criminal justice system in Ohio and across the nation, such as overly punitive penalties and racial bias, prisoners may inadvertently be over-classified and stereotyped. The result is making non-violent people appear more dangerous than they really are. In turn, prison officers may unreasonably use force than necessary based on misconceptions of prisoners. The Mansfield Correctional Institution where level 3 prisoners are held, had the highest number of incidents in 2014 with 464, higher than other high-level security facilities in Ohio.

Lack of Transparency

The report found some troubling issues with the documentation of use of force incidents:

  • That the lack of preservation of video documentation following incidents remains a serious concern.
  • Documentation errors were present at most facilities.
  • A majority of prisoners in the report refused to provide a statement.

More importantly, the Ohio state code also stipulates that staff is encouraged to “video record any use of force whenever possible” and “photographs and/or videos of the incident should be preserved and incorporated into the permanent record of the use of force incident.” Unfortunately it is not mandatory for officers to video record the use of force, even though it may be difficult to do so in some instances. Failing to properly document use of force incidents provides a lack of accountability for abuses in the system. It also is troubling that the CIIC report indicates there are still issues in recording prison use of force issues and that many prisoners declined to give a statement. One might think according to that information, that fear of future retaliation by officers was the reason prisoners refused to provide statements.

Further Improvement

The CIIC rated that use of force-related incidents in Ohio prisons, and particularly in Mansfield, remained acceptable, with no change in the report in 2014. Yet, there are still issues of using force with individuals incarcerated in Ohio prisons, which should carefully be taken into consideration as long as these issues remain.

Rehabilitation is the term used for what prisons should do for prisoners. Yet, using force doesn’t essentially lead to rehabilitation or compliance, and instead continues to foster a culture of fear and violence.

Mike Denis is an intern with The ACLU of Ohio.

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