An open and shut case
No complaints from staff, commissioners as new jail operator takes over
LISBON — One of the first changes you might notice at the county jail is warden Mike Curley no longer wears a dress shirt and tie.
Curley and other staff now wear dark gray polo shirts and military-style cargo pants in place of the old, more traditional corrections officer uniforms. This subtle change is the first of many expected to occur under Correctional Solutions Group, the firm hired by county commissioners to take over jail operations starting July 1.
CSG has been working with Curley and new assistant warden Tom Mackie for the past two months in preparing for the changeover in operations from the GEO Group, which ran the facility since February 2017.
“It’s actually been an outstanding transition. GEO did us right. It was smooth and there was no animus,” said Curley, who was hired away by CSG so he could stay on as warden.
CSG gave them the option of selecting a new uniform, and Curley said they decided on the polo shirt and cargo pants because it is more practical than trying to break up a fight between inmates while dressed in a shirt and tie.
“Tom and I decided because we’re hands on that we should go back into uniform, too,” he said.
There is also another advantage to having all employees wear polo shirts and cargo pants, commonly known as battle dress uniforms. They are colored coded so staff can tell supervisors from corrections officers and by rank, which will prove useful when reviewing security video footage of an incident.
Curley said the employees like the change. “They hated the old uniforms,” he said.
CSG, which is smaller than GEO and does not operate any state or federal prisons, has a more flexible operating style.
“The one thing about being smaller is you don’t have the layers of bureaucracy that you have to go through that you have with a large corporations that run huge prisons. We can really fine tune the security needs that they (Curley and Mackie) identify,” said David Stanfield, CSG’s chief operating officer.
Curley said CSG has given them greater autonomy in making decisions involving daily operations. Stanfield said when Curley does need permission to do something, a decision will come quickly because he or someone else in charge can be reached immediately.
“With the management team we have in place — bringing in Tom and working with warden Curley –we’re confident we’re going to make some changes, little changes. It’s already a good-running facility,” he said.
Mackie, who was hired after CSG was awarded the contract, worked with Curley in management positions when they were employed by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Both served as prison wardens during their tenure before retiring.
Curley said Mackie “gives us a fresh set of eyes” in evaluating what changes need to be made. “He comes from where I come from, so we speak the same language,” he said.
Stanfield is pleased with the experience they bring. “You have a lot of experience in that room, and they’ve seen it all,” he said.
The decision to switch to CSG comes a year after a series of well-publicized incidents at the jail, mostly resulting from reports filed by the county sheriff’s office. Several weeks ago, three inmates escaped from the minimum-security wing of the jail complex by tearing out a metal window covering and using cutting pliers to escape through the perimeter fence. Two left in a passing vehicle, while the other returned to the jail. The two who left were captured the next day.
Stanfield said they are aware of the escape, which was the first in nearly 11 years. “That is not unique to this county. It happens all across the nation,” he said, adding steps are already underway to correct the issues that contributed to the escape. This include county commissioners making physical improvements to the minimum-security wing, which was originally built in the 1970s to serve as a county nursing home for poor people.
Curley said he is now free to speak with the local news media about operational issues without deferring to corporate officials, something he was not allowed to do with GEO. He said the inability to speak directly with the news media often resulted in stories that lacked the additional details needed to put the incident in context, something he believes happened with the escape coverage.
Curley said the problem is magnified by social media in general and Facebook in particular. He said when something about the jail is posted on social media it almost always lacks context, with the latest example being a selfie on Facebook of five smiling inmates that generated critical comments.
The photo was a month-old photograph they were aware of, and the cellphone had already been found and the problem addressed. “What it proves is someone had a cellphone, and that’s problematic everywhere,” Curley said.
“He’s absolutely right … It’s nationwide,” Stanfield said of the problem of cellphones being smuggled into jails and prisons.
While the county could purchase equipment to disrupt cellphone signals, it is costly and would also impede the use of staff phones. “The best way to combat this is an old-fashioned shakedown (of cells) and exercise due diligence on the part of the security staff,” Curley said.
Finding contraband should be helped by the recent acquisition of a full-body scanner for the jail. Commissioners also purchased a new video surveillance system to replace the original one installed in 1998. Stanfield said both purchases put the county jail at the forefront when it comes to technology.
“It gives these guys the tools they need to do an effective job,” he said.
When Curley first arrived in November 2017, he discovered inmates were given cans of soda pop. He said this was a bad idea since cans conduct electricity and can also be manufactured into a weapon.
“So I said, ‘We’ll just give them (plastic) pop bottles.’ Well, pop bottles fit perfectly down our toilets and plugged our toilets. Then I was getting complaints (on social media) that I was making inmates wade around in their feces. I didn’t do that. They did. It was self-inflicted,” he said.
The inmates now only get powdered drinks in a cup.
Inmates continue to flush clothing, bedding and whatever else they can down their toilets, and Curley said this often happens at night and on weekends, making it difficult to get a plumber. Commissioners have since purchased an industrial toilet auger to help unclog commodes.
Curley was going through incident reports dating back to the early 2000s and was not surprised by what he found. “The same things that are going on today were going on back then. Its the nature of the business,” he said.
Stanfield said the Texas-based CSG is a relative newcomer to the private operation of government detention and treatment facilities. The company was formed in 2014, and Stanfield and the other principal partners have a combined 108 years of experience operating local and county jails and detention centers, transitional residential facilities for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, residential treatment facilities for the California Department of Corrections, and state and county pre-release transition centers.
CSG currently operates a residential transition facility in Edinburg, Texas, for the state corrections department and was recently selected to operate the county jail in Lincoln County, N.M.
“We’re excited about being here in Columbiana County. It’s a really good fit for both the county and us as a company,” Stanfield said.
Under CSG, staff will undergo additional training. Stanfield said they offer a tiered health insurance plan, and they anticipate being able to grant pay raises under the contract with commissioners.
Staffing has been an issue, due mostly to the low pay, but Curley said “recruitment and retention has gotten better” since GEO raised starting pay to $14 an hour last year. He said staffing is always a problem and cannot recall ever being at 100 percent at any facility he has ever worked.
Stanfield is encouraging their wardens to purchase locally when possible, even when it may be a bit more expensive to do so.
“It’s taxpayer money and we want to keep it in the community if we can. It’s Columbiana County’s money and we want to be part of the community,” he said.
Curley said one of his goals is to improve jail operations to where they can seek accreditation by the American Correctional Association, and he does not know if that has ever been done before.
“That’s a milestone in and of itself,” he said.