Following reports of deaths from COVID-19 in a federal prison in Ohio, and as more inmates and staffers test positive for the coronavirus in three state prisons, officials have identified more prisoners who could be released early.
With 48,697 people in the state's prisons as of January, facilities are overcrowded at around 128% capacity. Even though intake numbers have dropped about by about a fifth, advocates for prisoners say the population needs to get a lot smaller quickly.
Gov. Mike DeWine said he’s using the state’s "overcrowding emergency" statute to suggest the release of 141 inmates who were within 90 days of their release – after screening out many crimes.
“Sex offenses, we eliminated them," DeWine said. "Those who are homicide-related offenses, we eliminated them. Kidnapping, abduction, we eliminated them. Ethnic intimidation, eliminated them. Making terrorist threats, we eliminated them. Domestic violence, we eliminated them as well," DeWine said.
In addition, DeWine recommended the release of another 26 inmates who are over 60, have a chronic health condition, have served at least half of their sentence and also met the screening criteria.
DeWine said using his power to commute their sentences would take too long because of a 60-day notice that’s required for judges, prosecutors and victims. He also wants local input, so he has another proposal.
“We are asking judges and prosecutors across Ohio who are associated with these individuals to waive the 60-day notice so we can take these cases directly to the Parole Board," DeWine said. "This will be a decision made locally by the judge, by the prosecutor."
DeWine noted that he and the Parole Board can recommend additional conditions for those inmates’ release, and they can go back to prison if they violate them.
This brings the total possible releases to 205 – including a group of 38 previously-identified inmates who are pregnant or recently had babies, or are over 60 with health problems and less than three months left in their sentences.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which has been pushing for more prisoners to be released, isn’t satisfied with this plan.
“While it’s going to help them, it’s not going to make anywhere near the dent that is needed with regard to addressing the prison system as a whole," said Gary Daniels.
Daniels sad DeWine’s proposal is too modest and has too many conditions, at a time when he says much more needs to be done to keep inmates and prison staff healthy and safe.
“He’s shut down private businesses and private entities. He’s restricted personal movement of people. We’ve seen an election date moved," Daniels said. "With all of these sweeping powers that the governor has used, we certainly think he can apply this to the prison system and should be applying it to the prison system.”
The Elkton federal prison near Youngstown has had three suspected COVID-19 deaths. At three state prisons, 14 inmates and nearly 30 staffers have tested positive for the disease.
Daniels didn't have a specific number to point to, but noted the system is 10,000 people above capacity. He said many are in prison for technical violations and non-violent offenses.
Daniels said each facility must pick a maximum number of inmates and then have plans on containing COVID-19.
Daniels says the best solution may be one inmate per cell – which could mean cutting the total prison population in half.
“When you’re talking about the bold moves needed ideally – political considerations, practical considerations aside – talking just simply realistically what’s needed at this point, you are talking about thousands upon thousands of individuals," Daniels said.
DeWine said releasing just these inmates isn’t going to open up a lot of space. But he suggested a few days ago that a huge release of people from prison is unlikely.
“What we’re doing is trying to be very careful, very respectful of the local courts, respectful of the local victims, respectful of public safety. And that’s why we set a pretty strict, or very strict criteria about who we would even think about or who we would even consider," DeWine said.
Among those on the possible release list of inmates over 60 with health problems is Tom Noe, convicted in 2006 of stealing nearly $14 million from a rare coin investment he managed for the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Noe was denied clemency by the parole board in 2018.