Inmates Fear Spread Of COVID-19 At Ohio Prison Hospital: 'We Can’t Escape It'

Apr 20, 2020

Inmates sitting in soiled diapers or beds for hours. Feces in the showers. Urine caked on beds.

These are just some of the conditions reported by inmates at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus – conditions that were problems well before coronavirus hit the facility.

"The thing that irritates me most is they want to do everything with the same gloves on," says inmate Daniel Phipps. "They do not change their gloves at all. And I’m not talking about just one or two of 'em, I’d say 70% of them do not change their gloves on the regular."

Phipps is paralyzed from the waist down and has medical issues that require nursing care, like many inmates at the state’s only prison health care facility.

He and other inmates allege that workers at FMC are putting a prison full of at-risk inmates even more in danger of COVID-19.

"This is serious," Phipps says. "You should be changing your gloves, washing your hands, keeping that mask on, and it’s like, they don’t do that."

A Notorious Reputation

Inmate Lacey Carroll says she has to request for nurses and doctors to change their gloves, or they won’t do it. 

"To me, this is my opinion, it’s not sanitary," Carroll says. "And people are not doing their jobs. There’s some that do, but it’s very few."

She says, if anything, people have been cleaning less since coronavirus hit FMC, not more.

"Even just looking at my bed right, now there’s stuff caked up all in it, dirt, so if you easily catch infections and you just had a surgery, this is really not the place you want to be," she says. "A lot of people get infections after surgery here, abscesses."

Daniel Phipps is an inmate at Franklin Medical Center.
Credit JPay screenshot

Carroll is pregnant, so she’s one of about 300 inmates recommended for early release by Gov. Mike DeWine, out of a total state prison population of 49,000.

Advocates at the ACLU of Ohio say that’s not nearly enough. In order to accomplish proper social distancing behind bars, where facilities are already over-capacity, the ACLU estimates Ohio's inmate population would need to be cut in half. 

As of Monday, 3,312 inmates at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction tested positive for COVID-19, more than 100 of which are at the Franklin Medical Center. Inmates in the prison system make up 26% of all cases statewide. 

"There’s no way we can social distance," says inmate Ron Mathias. "We work in the kitchen elbow to elbow."

When the coronavirus started spreading, Mathias and several other workers were moved permanently to the hospital side of the facility, where he says conditions are worse.

Nurses are taking temperatures every day, but he says he isn’t comforted by that.

"Her gloved hand, she never changes her gloves," he says. "So it’s right there by your nose and mouth and you’re breathing what another 70 guys breathed out."

Mathias says some inmates refused to make the move to the hospital side because of its notorious conditions.

Inmate Tyrell Brant, who helps clean the prison, says he would refuse too.

"They don’t have a hole deep enough, they don’t have a punishment steep enough," Brant says. "They could add more time on my sentence and I still wouldn’t consider it, the things I’ve heard about that place." 

A few days after moving to the hospital side, one person in Ron Mathias’s five-person cell tested positive for coronavirus.

"We can't escape it," Mathias says. 

Franklin Medical Center is under full quarantine due to the coronavirus.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU

View From Above  

Prison officials say they are working to keep inmates and workers safe. 

"As soon as we find out someone has symptoms, we’re going to change the living accommodations and put them on isolation protocols," says Jennifer Clayton, head of health and holistic services at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Clayton says she has not received any reports about what inmates allege is happening at the Franklin Medical Center.

"As a correctional system, we’ve done this for years with seasonal influenza and tuberculosis and things like that," she says. "Because of our congregate setting, this is something that we know how to do."

She says everyone at FMC was tested for coronavirus. However, they do not plan to test inmates again, to track how the virus is spreading. 

The head of Ohio’s prisons also defends practices at the prison health care facility.

"I do not agree that it is uncleanly, it certainly wasn’t last time I was there," says ODRC director Annette Chambers-Smith. "I think the health care staff and custody staff at the Franklin Medical Center are doing a very good job."'

But corrections officer Michael Rider says even the guards at FMC are at a higher risk than the rest of the prison system. If an inmate is critically ill, they are transferred from FMC to the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s prison ward.

And FMC officers like Rider are tasked with guarding them at the hospital.

"I don’t care if I’m in the room or outside of the room, if I’m there, I want an N-95 mask," Rider says. "I’m not getting that. Our staff is not getting that. Our staff is becoming ill."

Rider says most of the 46 FMC staffers who have contracted coronavirus were with inmates at the Wexner Medical Center.

The hospital has 23 beds for inmates, which they report is already not enough for the critically ill coming out of Ohio’s prisons.

What questions do you have about the coronavirus in Ohio? Ask below as part of our Curious Cbus series.

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