In which our intrepid hero is abruptly reminded that not everybody can come and go as they please…
Ohio has over 50,000 inmates in its state prison system, close to its all-time high. Ohio’s prison population is ranked 6th in the nation in size (Ohio is the 7th most populous state). The prison population has grown by about 33% in the past 20 years, during a time when the population of the state itself has increased only slightly. In this, Ohio is representative of a huge problem in the United States: the high rate of incarceration (the highest in the entire world, which is a sad and remarkable fact). It didn’t used to be like this; the incarceration rate was quite low through the history of the United States until the 1980s, when it began to precipitously rise. Longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, a lack of rehabilitation programs, the heavy criminalization of crack cocaine, and other factors combined to create this serious problem—a problem most people don’t know or care about (if you are interested in prison issues, I strongly recommend subscribing to Prison Legal News). I came across an example of Ohio’s high rate of incarceration myself on this excursion.
[Remember that you can click on any of the pictures below to see larger, better versions]
As I continued my journey southwards, approaching Chillicothe, I came across a large prison on my right. This was the Ross Correctional Institution, a fairly large prison that was built in 1987 as part of Ohio’s great prison expansion. It has a population of slightly over 2,000 inmates, almost all of whom are Security Level 3 (Close Security, which is between medium security and maximum security).
What might surprise many people is almost across the street from the Ross Correctional Institution is a completely different prison! There are two major prisons within yards of each other. The other prison is the older, slightly larger Chillicothe Correctional Institution. Built in 1966, it currently houses 2,754 prisoners, almost all of them either Minimum Security or Medium Security prisoners. There is a huge exception to that, though. The prison houses 134 death row inmates as well (Ohio relocated its death row population to this prison in 2011). Both the Chillicothe Correctional Institution and the Ross Correctional Institution are significantly overcrowded, each at around 150% of capacity.
To me, one of the more striking aspects of CCI was its apparent age. The prison is not yet 50 years old, but looks far older. According to recent inspection reports, it is not always kept up well inside, either, with restroom and shower facilities being a particular problem.
The chain link fences make it hard to see the prison beyond. To get a better view I would have had to go right up the outside fence and taken pictures through it, but this might have attracted the ire of prison officials (I was chased out of a prison parking lot once before, even though I had not even left my car). You can see that there are prisoners here walking around outside, perhaps reflective of the lower security status.
Here’s a Google maps view of the two prisoners. RCI is on the left; CCI is on the right.
From the prisons, it was just a quick jaunt to Chillicothe itself. Chillicothe is famous for little other than being the first capital of Ohio. Like most towns in Ohio, Chillicothe has experienced population decline, though it has not been anywhere near as steep a decline as many other towns have suffered. Chillicothe’s population peaked in 1960 at nearly 25,000; today, population is at nearly 22,000. Moreover, recent years have suggested a very slight increase, suggesting that Chillicothe’s population may have stabilized. The per capita income is slightly over $19,000, making it a more prosperous towns than some of the others we have seen here. Because it is one of the older cities in Ohio, it has a number of old buildings, in conditions both good and less so.
This particular building is fairly unremarkable, except for what it represents. Small town and rural Ohio are full of these buildings, which are, of course, old gas stations. Many have been torn down—as have almost all such buildings in urban areas of Ohio—but some have been repurposed and others just left alone. The building below is one of the latter; it seems to serve no function other than as a parking lot now.
The last two photographs serve to tell a story about hasty judgments. As I drove down one street of Chillicothe, I saw out of the corner of my eye an old Santa-like man, his head lowered in depression, sitting in front of a sign for a cheap apartment building. I was struck by how depressed he seemed, by himself, unable even to look up and face the world. I decided that I wanted to document this sad pose, if I could do so without attracting his attention. I turned my car around drove back, and turned it around again in a distant parking lot across the street from him. Then I zoomed in to take the picture. Sadness incarnate.
Only later, when I got home and looked at the picture, I zoomed in to see the details and noticed something. My “sad old man” was not hanging his head dejectedly in sorrow and depression. He was looking down at a cellphone. And he had a coffee next to him and was smoking a cigarette. In other words, though I have no idea how happy or sad this man might be, he clearly was not in the disconsolate frame of mine I had thought he was. Heck, he could be looking at sports scores or text-messaging with a granddaughter, for all I know. It’s a useful lesson in not jumping to conclusions.