Innovators in Action: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr

In the latest installment of Reason Foundation’s Innovators in Action series, I interview Gary Mohr, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), on creating a culture of competition in corrections.

In September 2011, the ODRC announced the results of a groundbreaking procurement that will see the state raise $72 million from the sale of one state prison to a private operator—the first sale of its kind in the nation—and two others turned over to private management, for an estimated $13 million in annualized cost savings. One additional facility formerly under private sector operation was also brought back under in-house operation.

Notably, the state’s biennial budget signed in June 2011 authorized ODRC to sell up to five prisons to help close the state’s budget deficit and reduce corrections costs, though ODRC ultimately opted to pursue a mix of asset sales, outsourced facility operations and facility consolidation/insourcing.

In the interview—available here— Mohr discusses the rationale behind this large-scale and historic procurement, how ODRC uses the private sector in corrections and the role of privatization and competition in driving positive change throughout the state-run correctional system.

Here’s an excerpt:

Leonard Gilroy, Reason Foundation: Last year, Ohio made history by becoming the first state to sell a prison to a private operator, at the same time that you both insourced and outsourced the operation of several other prisons. Can you describe the rationale for those moves, and what benefits do you expect?

Gary Mohr, Director, Ohio Department of Corrections: In a labor-oriented state, when we talk about outsourcing and privatization, it’s always a contentious topic. But my vision all along was this: we’re going to reform our system, which means that we need some catalysts for change. And my vision has been that you use competing forces. When you put in people that are earnestly concerned about competing and have a solid framework—which is the request for proposals (RFP)—what you can do is not just save resources, but you can literally enhance all of the operations by ratcheting up the standards and ratcheting up the best practices that can be created from both the public sector and multiple private vendors.

So in terms of reforming, we wanted to develop systems to reduce violence, and we wanted to develop programming to reduce recidivism, because that should be our measure, quite frankly. And what we have seen with this initiative is that we have reduced violence, and we’ve reduced the gang violence by 25 percent if we look at January through March of 2011 compared to the same period in 2012.

Now was that exclusively due to privatization? No. But I believe that the element of competition plays an important role in that.

Second, I’ve been a believer in decentralized unit management. I was involved in putting it in place in Ohio in the mid-1980s, and I know it is the most effective way to safely and proactively operate prison settings. And the benefit of outsourcing is that while Ohio had essentially deleted unit management, the ability to outsource immediately put in the RFP the requirement that these facilities will be fully unit managed to allow them to get a jump-start on shifting back to unit management. This served as an incentive for rest of state facilities to get back into the unit management way of doing business.

And along with that, we’re continuing to enhance the training and providers of evidence-based programs that have direct contact with inmates.

So those were huge for us as I looked at reforming our system to a safer, more proactive, and more evidence-based program delivery methodology, and certainly served in that positive, competitive sense.

Read the rest of the interview here for more of Gary Mohr’s fresh and enlightening insights on bringing a culture of competition to corrections to drive better outcomes in offender rehabilitation and public safety. For more details on Ohio’s recent correctional privatization initiatives, see Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2011.

For more interviews in the Innovators in Action 2012 series here.