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Report: lost inmate property costs Ohio taxpayers

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Inmate property that is lost, stolen or destroyed costs Ohio taxpayers more than $150,000 a year in claims reimbursement and diverted staff time, according to a new report that also says the cost is growing.

Inmates lose property when they're transferred from one cell to another, keep property in unsecured storage areas or have it stolen by other prisoners, said the report by Ohio's Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

The losses can hurt inmates' legal outcomes when important documents go missing and also result in time and money taken away from the corrections system, said the report issued earlier this month.

Inmates' property can include family photos, mail, legal papers, hygiene items, electronic items such as radios and food from the prison commissary.

"To Ohio taxpayers, this results in state dollars that are spent not on rehabilitation and correction, but on unnecessary compensation," the report said.

A 2010 internal audit of Oregon's prison system found $538,743 paid to settle civil claims for lost, confiscated or withheld property over nine years. California, which just began a system for documenting property losses, paid about $1,600 last year in prisoner property claims.

In Ohio, an inmate at Madison Correctional Institution sued in the state Court of Claims for $81.48 after a CD player, a bottle of scented oil, soup and stamped envelopes were stolen from his cell when he was pulled out for disciplinary reasons in September 2011.

The prisoner, John Thomas, was cleared of any rule breaking and a judge sided with him, awarding him $82.49, which included an estimated cost of the lost property plus a $25.00 filing fee, according to a July court filing.

Court of claims records also show numerous inmates had their claims denied, but only after several months of back-and-forth filings. On Aug. 7, the court rejected a $448 claim by inmate Jeffery Scott at Mansfield Correctional, who said a TV, fan, video game, 300 photos, clothes and other items were stolen when he was put in segregation for fighting a year ago.

Scott claimed 3 ½ hours passed before his cell was packed up, during which time the items were stolen. The court of claims said the prisoner hadn't proved the delay resulted in the theft and hadn't proved the state was negligent.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction paid out $114,350 from 2007 through 2011 in reimbursement claims, according to the CIIC report. Claims increased 119 percent during that time, the report said.

During the same time, it cost the prison system $668,726 in staff hours to handle the grievances leading to the claims, the report said.

The prisons system conducted training earlier this year on handling loss claims, including ways to reduce property losses.

Prisons officials "are aware of the inmate property theft and loss issues and are taking prison-specific measures to address the matter," said DRC spokesman Mike Davis.

One in five inmate grievances involve lost or stolen property and half the property grievances involve material lost, damaged or confiscated by staff, according to the report.

The report recommended the state should allow inmates to pack up their own property under close supervision when they are moved from a cell to reduce losses.

The state should also better document inmates' property, and place a properly maintained storage vault for inmate property at each prison, the report recommended.

The report also recommends changing rules for how much money inmates can keep in their commissary accounts.

Current policy allows court costs to be deducted from those accounts down to a $15 minimum balance.

The unintended consequence of this policy is inmates have more reason to steal from fellow prisoners if they're never allowed more than $15 in their accounts, the report said.

Prison staff recommended changing the deduction to a percentage amount of the balance, according to the CIIC report.

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.

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