Op-Ed: The Public Health Threat in Ohio’s Prisons is Not Over

Op-Ed: The Public Health Threat in Ohio’s Prisons is Not Over
Marion Correctional/ Ohio Department of Corrections
As of Monday, Ohio had confirmed 54,232 novel coronavirus infections throughout the state. One of the most striking truths about COVID-19 data in Ohio is that 9 percent of these cases (5,048) are linked to a single source: its state prison system. Right now 1 in 5 people incarcerated across Ohio’s 28 prisons (10,047) are living in quarantine due to threats of infection. Sadly, COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of 86 incarcerated Ohioans and 5 correctional staff, an incarceration-driven death toll that falls behind only the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Texas Department of Corrections.

Over the last several weeks my colleague Dr. Breanna Boppre and I have been collecting national data to document what it is like to love someone who is incarcerated during a global pandemic. Over 300 family members with loved ones incarcerated in 40 U.S. states have responded by completing surveys, with 34 participating in in-depth follow up interviews. One of our preliminary findings is clear: responses to the pandemic behind prison walls have varied across states.

Of our 300 participants, 14 have family members incarcerated in Ohio. Less than a third of these individuals indicated their loved one was tested for COVID-19. While Ohio implemented mass testing in a few of its prisons (e.g., Marion and Pickaway), to date only 30 percent of the prison population has been tested state-wide. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) is currently among states that lack data transparency, failing to disclose specifics about testing procedures, for example. ODRC has also refused to release additional data that would help contextualize outbreaks in its prisons, such as hospitalization and ICU admissions. These concerns reinforce family members’ struggles to receive answers to their questions.

Only half of our Ohio participants said personal protective equipment (PPE) was provided to their incarcerated loved ones. All have reported dormitory style living conditions, raising concerns about the inabilities of their loved ones to practice physical distancing, even when told to do so. The vast majority report feeling unsatisfied with ODRC’s response to the pandemic, which has intensified feelings of anxiety and impacted families’ abilities to sleep. Multiple Ohio family members have told us plainly that they fear their loved one will not make it out of prison alive.

So what can Ohio learn? Based on our research, we suggest the following.

First, ODRC must expand its testing efforts. Only with full testing information can we understand the scope of the problem in Ohio’s prisons and its associated risks. Uncertainties about COVID-19 status among incarcerated persons and their loved ones can also only be addressed with testing.

Second, ODRC needs to increase its data transparency efforts. ODRC should be able to answer basic questions about the types of COVID-19 tests it is using as well as release information on the number of hospitalizations and ICU admissions borne out of COVID-19 positive cases. Providing this information would assist families with incarcerated loved ones who desire to understand the risks they are facing. Such information would also enhance education among the public.

Third, ODRC must get to work to expand its capacities to implement CDC guidelines. This includes reducing its population size so physical distancing guidelines are possible to follow and ensuring all incarcerated people and correctional staff have unrestricted access to PPE, including masks. One Ohio family member in our study offered to donate masks in light of prison supply shortages, but was told this was not possible. Ensuring incarcerated persons have access to these supplies can go a long way in not only alleviating the stress felt by family members, but also in mitigating spread of the disease.

The public health threats driven by incarceration have not subsided in Ohio. Just ask someone with a loved one behind bars. With nearly 1 in 2 U.S. adults experiencing the incarceration of an immediate family member, you won’t have to go far.

Dr. Meghan Novisky, Cleveland State University (@DrNovisky)
Dr. Breanna Boppre, Wichita State University (@bree_bop)
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