U.S. Representative Steve Stivers addresses a group of state and regional leaders Thursday at The Lodge at Hocking College. The invite-only meeting was to discuss the future of the Hocking Correctional Unit facility. Susan Tebben / WOUB News

Future of Hocking Correctional Unit Discussed at Invite-Only Meeting

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NELSONVILLE — Opioid addiction, rehabilitation, broadband and job training were all ideas brought up at a meeting to discuss the future of the former Hocking Correctional Unit.

U.S. Representative Steve Stivers, who represents Ohio’s 15th district, said he brought the meeting together at The Lodge at Hocking College to come up with ideas for the prison facility. Despite protesters outside holding signs questioning the invite-only nature of the meeting, Stivers said the purpose of the meeting was not to get reaction about the closure itself.

“I’m really trying to help here, I know there may have been some confusion about what this meeting was about,” Stivers said. “…If folks want to have a meeting about the closure, that’s up to your state representatives and state senators…that’s nothing I can change.”

The prison, which held 430 older male inmates and amounted to about 100 jobs in Nelsonville, was closed by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction due to budgetary concerns. The department said the facility was the “single most expensive facility to operate in the entire state,” with $11.5 million in operating costs. That amounts to $65 per day per inmate (called “per diem” costs), according to state data. Comparably-sized facilities pay an average of $21 per inmate per day.

The conference room at The Lodge at Hocking College was full for a meeting to discuss plans for the former prison facility in Nelsonville.
Photo by Susan Tebben / WOUB News

Local officials like State Representative Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, were taken aback by the abrupt closure of the facility, and the lack of communication before the decision. Immediately after the closure was announced, Edwards said he had communicated with ODRC Director Gary Mohr, but was not notified about the move until the day it was publicly announced.

At the meeting, which both Edwards and Mohr attended, the focus turned to moving on from the decision.

“There’s no point in holding to (the criticism exchanged between Edwards and Mohr), we need to move forward and make this a win for the region,” Edwards said.

Mohr talked to the group of 70 to 80 regional leaders, business owners and representatives from both Hocking College and Ohio University, but left as soon as the meeting adjourned.

Members of the community, including Nelsonville City Council President Ed Mash, City Council member Taylor Sappington, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, a representative from Integrated Services and former Athens County Job & Family Services head Jack Frech came to the microphone with their ideas about what to do with the facility and generally what the area needs.

Hocking County Municipal Court Judge Fred Moses, who also runs the county’s Drug Court, proposed the facility be used to help with overpopulation in the jails, and lack of space for female inmates.

“What I look for in this is some way we can use this facility when I can’t lock a female up if I want to,” Moses said. “So many kids are using meth and heroin, and I don’t have the jail space, I pray to God they make it ’til the next morning.”

Sappington echoed the desire of Nelsonville City Council in asking for the city to gain at least part-ownership of the facility. He also referenced the federal budget negotiations when addressing Stivers about bringing funding to the area.

“Hopefully we can avoid a shutdown in three weeks and get some money down here,” Sappington said.

Stivers said he is hopeful that the three-week period until the expiration of the latest budget deadline extension will be enough to work out a bill that benefits everyone.

“And, as part of (President Donald Trump’s) State of the Union, I hope he proposes, and then we can start working on, funding for the emergency that is the opioid epidemic,” Stivers said.

The representative says he will now look at the ideas that came from the meeting and see what federal funding sources could be used to help. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is accepting proposals about the facility until March.