Ohio's already crowded prison system is projected to climb to more than 51,000 inmates by the end of June, raising concerns that the crowding could lead to violence.
Prison officials project the number of inmates will reach a record 51,601 by June 30, more than 4,100 higher than predicted by state officials in 2012, according to the Northeast Ohio Media Group (http://bit.ly/1kvg5un ). By 2019, the number of inmates in Ohio's 28 prisons is expected to climb to 53,484 inmates. That's nearly 140 percent above the 38,579 inmates that Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction records show the system was built to hold.
Prison experts and state officials warn that prison crowding leads to more inmate violence against staff and fellow prisoners, and prison guards and department reports paint a picture of two or three prisoners sharing cells built for one and halls crowded with lines of inmates.
"You're packed in there like a can of sardines," said Phil Morris, a corrections officer at Lebanon Correctional Institution and president of the local union for prison guards and staff.
With more inmates, "The prisons are going to erupt, and we're going to lose one of them — if not more," Morris said.
Ohio's prison population has more than doubled in the past 25 years, jumping from 24,750 in 1988 to 50,604 as of last month, according to department records.
Department Director Gary Mohr told the editorial board of the media group and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland last month that crowding may have been a factor in a recent rash of prison suicides.
The surge in inmates, which authorities attribute partly to a rise in crime, also raises concerns that the state might be forced to release inmates well before they have completed their sentences to free up cell space.
California is scrambling now to avoid releasing thousands of inmates after a federal court ruled that the state's overpopulated prisons deprived prisoners of adequate medical and mental health care.
Mohr said last month that Ohio was getting "perilously" close to California's situation, but a department spokeswoman says there are no plans to release large numbers of prisoners at once to address Ohio's problem.
Mohr says the best way to stop crowding is to focus on community alternatives and rehabilitation programs designed to prevent former inmates from committing new crimes. He also is working to educate judges about "risk reduction" sentencing that would allow many nonviolent felons to be released from prison after serving at least 80 percent of their sentence.
He also says the department also will reopen prison wings that were closed when the prison population dipped temporarily in recent years.
J. Dean Carro, a retired University of Akron law professor who has researched prisoners' rights, said solving prison crowding will require addressing a number of larger complex issues, from education to housing to drug and alcohol abuse.
"There's not one answer — there has to be a comprehensive answer," he said.