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Civil rights alarms raised after Ohio prisons cut electricity as heat index rises

Posted Jul 19, 2013 3:02 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Ohio state prisons that turn off power and run on backup generators during heat waves may be saving the state some money, but the action also puts inmates and employees in a dangerous position, says the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to a WKSU News report, 24 Ohio prisons have agreements with power company KOREnergy to cut back on electricity use during peak periods, and doing so has saved the state’s department of rehabilitation and corrections approximately $1.4 million since 2010. It also reduces the risk of brownouts.

Under the agreements, the state agencies must agree to drastically cut electric use with two hours notice. They receive payments regardless of whether the service is interrupted. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the Columbus Dispatch that under the agreement her agency was paid $392,570 in 2010, $723,121 in 2011 and $260,837 in 2012.

Earlier this week electricity was restricted in 24 prisons, the Columbus Dispatch reports, and for two afternoons power for lights, fans, televisions and other electrical devices was shut off. Air conditioning remained on for staff offices, and inmates were given water and ice. Electric fences and other security systems remained operational.

“Cutting the power during a heatwave to make money is very short-sighted,” Mike Bricker, ACLU director of communications and public policy, said in a statement. “ Long term, it is a recipe for trouble.”

The state doesn't take sick prisoners to climate-controlled areas, according to Bricker, and inmates with ailments like asthma could be seriously harmed when denied access to air-conditioned areas. He also notes that there are more prison fights during hot weather.

The agency has said it’s reviewing the policy, and later in the week decided to cut electricity at only 5 prisons, all of which have backup generators, according to the Dispatch.

“The agency is concerned about the quality-of-life issues for the inmates and staff who are there with them,” Ricky Seyfang, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the newspaper.

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