Mon, Apr. 14, 2003

Prisons might lose accreditation

Corrections cancels contracts as budget woes continue


The State, South Carolina

Budget deficits have led the state Corrections Department to cancel accreditation contracts at four state prisons, including a maximum-security institution, to save about $250,000.

Director Jon Ozmint said he has reluctantly dropped the American Correctional Association seal of approval this fiscal year and might have to drop accreditation at other prisons if state funding doesn't improve.

All but two of the state's 29 prisons are accredited.

Ozmint plans to replace ACA prison inspections with what he says will be tougher, in-house evaluations.

The cancellation is the latest in a series of Ozmint's belt-tightening moves as the prison system tries to manage a $28 million deficit for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Late last month, Ozmint announced he wiped out 148 jobs, mostly in prisons' education programs. Since budget cuts started in June 2001, about 1,500 full- and part-time employees have left, Ozmint said.

ACA auditors examine strengths and weaknesses of prisons and prison policies to improve operations for inmates and professionalism for employees. The result is better prisons and credible standards enforced by outside auditors.

But accrediting those four prisons would have consumed 20 percent of the agency's budget for prison maintenance. "We're going to spend it on maintenance on 29 institutions instead of four,'' Ozmint said.

The maintenance budget has been cut two-thirds, from $3.6 million to $1.2 million, since the state's finances shriveled about three years ago, corrections figures show.

Ozmint's plan to begin canceling accreditation contracts has support in unlikely quarters. But it's considered shortsighted by others.

Gaston Fairey, a Columbia lawyer whose lawsuits over prison conditions have dogged prison officials for 20 years, said he understands Ozmint's dilemma.

"I support his action in times like these,'' he said. "Those are the kinds of things that, unfortunately, states have to do."

The cut is justifiable, Fairey said, if the savings help the staff.

Advocates of accreditation say it offers a range of benefits.


Prisons that will give up accreditation as of July 1 are:

"What pushed me over the top was that at the point you start sending people home...," Ozmint said. "Do you pay someone to tell you you're meeting standards that you already exceed?''

Internal inspectors can match or improve on ACA standards, he said, adding that unannounced inspections by in-house evaluators will maintain standards better than ACA's scheduled prison inspections.

Others don't agree.

"There's no watchdog,'' said Mike Davis of U.S. Risk Underwriters, one of the nation's largest companies that manage insurance for private prisons.

Former S.C. prisons director Bill Leeke also is skeptical about self-regulation.

"That's fine to do self-evaluations, but it won't replace a national certification process by any means," said Leeke, who brought accreditation to S.C. prisons during his 19-year tenure that ended in 1987.

Leeke said he hopes Ozmint does not walk away from ACA accreditation altogether.

Ozmint said he's not yet ready to take that step.

He wants to get a one-year extension from the ACA for the 11 prisons that come up for renewal during the fiscal year that begins July 1.


Ozmint came up with the $250,000 figure by adding the fees the corrections department pays the ACA for inspections and accreditation, the cost of changes needed to meet ACA standards and the staff time to make the changes.

On average, it costs the state $140,000 to accredit each prison, said agency chief of staff Richard Stroker. All prisons except Kirkland and Graham correctional institutions are accredited on three-year cycles. Graham is the oldest of the three women's prisons.

But the expense varies widely depending on the size and age of the prison and whether it's maximum- or minimum-security.

Stroker estimates the cost of changes per prison ranges from $90,000-$100,000, while staff time costs $35,000-$40,000 per prison.

Something's not right with those figures, said Bob Verdeyen, ACA's accreditation director.

"They don't seem real to me,'' said the former warden, who has tried to persuade Ozmint to keep the contracts. "They sound high to me.''

Verdeyen said South Carolina's fee for a three-year ACA accreditation is low: $7,200 per institution compared with $8,500 for similar prisons in other states. That's 18 percent less.


Verdeyen said accreditation helps reduce liability insurance premiums and can help corrections departments defend against some lawsuits.

"It doesn't guarantee that you won't be held liable, but logic tells me we would have been sued more times,'' Verdeyen said, referring to his 11 years as a federal prison warden.

U.S. Risk Underwriters of Scottsdale, Ariz., says ACA accreditation reduces annual premiums by 10 percent at privately insured detention facilities.

Risk Underwriters is one of the nation's largest private underwriters, managing $19 million in annual premiums, Davis said.

South Carolina prisons are insured through the state.

Stroker, who doubles as the corrections department's chief lawyer, said accreditation standards don't provide protection in court.

"I don't know of a case that a judge said, 'Because you meet ACA standards, I'm dismissing the case,'" Stroker said.

Leeke, a court-certified prisons expert in several Southeastern states and former ACA president, said accreditation helps prisons fight lawsuits, especially class-action cases.

Accreditation documents good faith efforts to improve conditions, the ACA said.

Fairey, the Columbia lawyer who frequently sues on behalf of prisoners, said ACA standards don't make or break cases. But lawyers around the country once used them to bolster cases that prison systems were poorly run.

Fairey's 1982 overcrowding lawsuit prompted the release of hundreds of S.C. inmates and brought better medical and mental health treatment.

Ozmint says meeting accreditation standards eats too much of the prison maintenance budget.

"We're using bond funds for maintenance and have been doing that for 2 1/2 years,'' Ozmint said. "We're still only repairing critical items."

Accreditation isn't as helpful in maintaining high standards as it used to be, Fairey said.

That began changing in the 1990s, when the ACA watered down its standards in response to pressure from states and the federal government, which fund the association, he said.

For example, the ACA determines prison staffing is sufficient if it "maintains safety.''

Such general standards result in arbitrary decisions, Fairey said.

ACA's Verdeyen counters that each prison is different and that standardized guard-to-prisoner ratios don't make sense.