Fourteen state prisons housing 21,000 inmates are now under quarantine due to the coronavirus, which continues to infect inmates and staff throughout Ohio's correctional facilities.
“Last weekend, we started mass testing of inmates at three of the facilities that have the largest outbreak,” says Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Chambers-Smith says all inmates are being tested at the Pickaway Correctional Institution, Marion Correctional Institution and the Franklin Medical Center. Across the entire prison system, 273 inmates and 159 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three inmates died from the disease at the Pickaway location, while one corrections officer who worked at Marion also died.
“We’ll have all of their staff tested, and you know, we’ll begin to react from the information that we have coming in and see what other testing needs to be done based off the information that we learn,” Chambers-Smith says.
Chambers-Smith says Ohio State University will bring in testing kits this week to the three most affected prisons, and the Ohio National Guard will help with testing inmates.
“Once we broadened our testing scope out, we started finding people who tested positive for COVID-19, but they don’t have any symptoms,” Chambers-Smith says. “And so, we need to try to identify those folks, so they are not mixing with the rest of our population and then giving someone COVID who actually would have symptoms and negative outcomes.”
To help with overcrowding, Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed releasing some inmates early if they are 90 days or less from completing their sentence and have not committed certain crimes, including rape or murder. A group of 105 inmates will be the first released, and more may come in the future.
Though that's a small number, compared to Ohio's total state prison population of 48,572, Chambers-Smith says it will still help.
“It’s certainly going to help those people that are being released and it does, every little bit of space we get to add more social distancing is positive,” Chambers-Smith says.
Civil rights advocates, including the ACLU of Ohio, have called for the governor to release up to 50% of the prison population.
DeWine says inmates released early will be tested for COVID-19 before they leave prison.
Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents 8,500 corrections officers within state prisons, has complained about conditions within facilities, including understaffing, mandatory overtime, a lack of personal protection equipment and insufficient social distancing measures.
Chambers-Smith says while some prisons have seen employees undergo 16-hour workdays, ODRC was following a pandemic plan already in place before the coronavirus outbreak. The department did update its procedures for how to handle COVID-19.
“I think there’s just a lot no one could have anticipated that we’ve had to adjust as we’ve gone along,” says Chambers-Smith.
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