As of Sunday, a single prison in central Ohio has more confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 than any county in the state. With a shocking 1,828 positive tests among its inmate population of 2,500, the Marion Correctional Institution has more cases than Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Franklin County (Columbus) and Hamilton County (Cincinnati).
More than 100 prison staffers have also tested positive for the virus there, which means that all told, Marion accounts for more than 17 percent of Ohio's total caseload. These eye-popping numbers are the result of long-delayed widespread testing at the facility.
The situation across the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has grown increasingly dire throughout April. But Gov. Mike DeWine, who has received accolades for his early, aggressive, science-based response to the pandemic, has refused to make anything but marginal efforts to reduce the state's overcrowded prison population. He has authorized the release of only 105 inmates out of a population of nearly 50,000.
The Supreme Court of Ohio, too, seems unwilling to part with what are presumably ironclad certitudes about the justice of the criminal justice system. Last week, justices dismissed a legal complaint from an HIV-positive inmate, Derek Lichtenwalter, who sought early release from an Ohio prison due to COVID-19.
"Bed areas are so crowded that I am within three feet of at least twelve people and those twelve are in the same position. This means that there are 126 people in my ‘dorm’ that are within 3-4 feet of each other," Lichtenwalter's complaint read. “The common areas are overcrowded, and what this means is once it gets to the prison it will be spread quickly through the population.”
Four inmates have now tested positive at Belmont Correctional, where Lichtenwalter is being held. The Ohio Supreme Court may have sentenced him to death.
Five inmates have now died at the Pickaway Correctional Institution and one has died at the Franklin Medical Center. Those two facilities, plus Marion, are the three at which extensive inmate testing has now occurred. There are nearly 400 positive cases among inmates at Pickaway.
“What we hope to be able to determine is here’s the percentage of people that are positive for COVID but they don't have any symptoms," ODRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith told the Statehouse News Bureau Sunday. "And then we'd be able to separate them from the people who don't have COVID at all. And we're the only state in the union doing that.”
Too little, too late. With roughly 75 percent of Marion's inmate population infected, the time for meaningful separation and quarantine is long past, especially seeing as Marion and other state facilities have been placing symptomatic prisoners in "quarantine" for weeks. That often has merely meant putting inmates in large rooms with other symptomatic inmates for varying durations. Scene has received multiple emails from the loved ones of inmates, relaying stories about unsafe quarantining procedures. The only responsible solution, advocates have been saying, is dramatically reducing prison populations. At Marion, what will be required now is sufficient medical resources to care for the inmates as their conditions worsen.
About 50 members of the National Guard were dispatched to Marion over the weekend to assist with "mission-critical" functions. And ODRC's spokeswoman, JoEllen Smith, told the local Marion paper that the Ohio state highway patrol would also be helping guard the perimeter. Instead of humanely releasing prisoners, DeWine's strategy now appears to be using police and military force to ensure that they don't escape from the hell that they're trapped in.
It has been exactly three weeks since Scene reported that the first case of COVID-19 at Marion was "worse than it seems." The spread of the virus was predicted in certain terms by experts and advocates who warned that the low-security nature of the facility, in which large groups of inmates regularly congregate and share spaces, made physical distancing impossible. Moreover, the infected staffer at Marion was a lieutenant whose work was not isolated to a specific area of the facility. "The positive test at Marion could spell disaster," we wrote.
The reported rate at MCI is now 70% & @NationalGuard has been called in. Praying for my people there. This was preventable via #SafeReleases #ClemencyNow #COVID19behindbars #Ohio https://t.co/B7AwP9NywB— Piper Kerman (@Piper) April 19, 2020
For anyone who doubted the spread in prisons and jails, look at this. 71% of the people in this prison tested positive. What else do governors need to see to give reprieves to vulnerable people in these facilities?! The temporary relief will save lives https://t.co/rV75gCqGve— Rachel Barkow (@RachelBarkow) April 19, 2020
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