John Seewer

TOLEDO: In the two years since Ohio’s newest prison began putting two inmates in the same cell to deal with overcrowding, the number of assaults among prisoners has soared.

Injuries needing outside hospital treatment have quadrupled. And after a dozen years without any deadly attacks inside the Toledo Correctional Institution, two inmates have been killed since September — the most recent one two weeks ago, when a prisoner was strangled with a rope in his cell.

The increase in violence is raising concerns about overcrowding at a time when the Toledo prison has added hundreds of new inmates, including maximum-security prisoners moved out of lower-security facilities.

“I’m worried that something is amiss out there. Just what it is, I have no idea. Obviously something is not right,” said state Sen. Edna Brown, D-Toledo, who’s on a legislative committee that has some oversight of the state’s prison system.

Brown said during a tour of the prison last year she heard more complaints from inmates about double bunking and a lack of space than anything else.

The committee warned of the rising number of assaults in a report issued last year. And this week, its executive director sent out a letter about the latest trouble at the Toledo prison.

“It is my firm belief that overcrowding will result in prison violence and I think that this is a key example,” wrote Joanna Saul, head of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

“It’s purely a population issue,” she said in an interview.

The growing number of inmate-on-inmate assaults just about matches the Toledo prison’s population increase over the last few years, said warden Ed Sheldon. There were 52 inmate assaults last year, up from 31 in 2011.

But the number of serious assaults, those requiring outside medical attention, jumped from an average of three per year to 16 last year, according to state statistics.

At the same time, inmate assaults on staff have been cut in half.

Sheldon said that the prison’s culture has changed dramatically with its rise in population.

It opened as a close security prison but now also houses about 225 maximum security inmates. The overall population increased by about 500 inmates at one point and is now at 1,250 inmates, well above where it was two years ago. The prison also has taken in new inmates from around the state, increasing tension among rival gangs.

“The numbers pretty much tell the tale,” Sheldon said.

The biggest change is that inmates no longer have their own cells.

“When you double bunk them, there’s a lot of tension,” the warden said.

Angela Brandel, a prison guard for the past 10 years in Toledo, said some changes made in response to the rising violence, such as isolating the well-behaved inmates, have helped.

But she doesn’t think it will be enough to stop the increased fighting.

“You still have the overcrowding and you still have the double-bunking,” she said. “What can you do when you have so many inmates?”

There is hope that a new law that took effect last fall will ease some of overcrowding and save the state money. The law forces judges to sentence some offenders to drug treatment programs or county jails instead of prison.

Corrections officials and investigators have not said whether double-bunking or overcrowding played a role in the two inmate deaths in Toledo.

An inmate serving a life sentence for killing three teenage girls and a Bible studies teacher was charged in the September strangling while the investigation is ongoing into the most recent slaying.

“Some of these guys are evil for a reason, that’s pretty much all I can say,” said the warden, who added that both killings have led to reviews of how to limit the chances of something like that happening again.

“I can’t prevent everything, but we have to limit the opportunities,” he said.