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Advocates Say Ohio’s Governor Is Failing To Protect Prisoners From Coronavirus

Governor Mike DeWine, critics say, ‘is risking turning low-level prison sentences into death sentences.’

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine addresses a gathering on August 04, 2019.Getty Images

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has been praised in some quarters for his response to the COVID-19 crisis, but he’s drawing criticism for failing to quickly help a large swath of Ohio’s population: the 49,000 people incarcerated across the state and the correctional staff watching over them.

Across Ohio on Wednesday, 21,021 prisoners were being held in quarantine, 331 in isolation, and 273 had tested positive. Three people incarcerated at the Pickaway Correctional Institution were confirmed dead this week. So far, 159 staff members across the system have tested positive. The department had conducted 1,157 COVID-19 tests as of Wednesday. 

On Friday, DeWine announced that every prisoner at three facilities—Marion Correctional Institution, Pickaway Correctional Institution, and the Franklin Medical Center—would be tested for coronavirus. Each of those facilities had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents or staff. Last week, a staff member at the Marion Correctional Facility who tested positive for coronavirus died. 

In the face of mounting infection numbers, DeWine announced Wednesday that he had approved the release of 105 incarcerated people who were formerly scheduled to be released in 90 days. 

Earlier this month, DeWine announced that he was taking steps to address the risks posed to prisoners by coronavirus, including possibly releasing some prisoners from custody. Between April 3 and April 7, he identified 205 incarcerated people who might be released, including “38 select offenders, 23 of whom are pregnant or postpartum women,” and 15 incarcerated people over the age of 60. Since then, he said his office has identified another 141 incarcerated people who might be released to reduce overcrowding.

During an April 7 briefing, DeWine made it clear that the criteria for release are extremely narrow. People with convictions for “serious charges” were eliminated, as were those who have a prior incarceration in Ohio. “We screened out interstate offenders. We screened out those who have warrants or detainers on them from other states or somewhere, and we also screened out those who have serious prison rule violations at any time in the last five years.” People who were already within 90 days of being released before the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t automatically included, either, despite recommendations by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The limitations in place have drawn strong criticism from criminal justice advocates. ACLU of Ohio Policy Director Jocelyn Rosnick called the governor’s list “a drop in the bucket,” affecting “less than 1 percent of the prison population.” In addition, “Governor DeWine provided three release recommendations for select people in Ohio prisons. It’s important to note that this does not guarantee their release,” she told The Appeal in a Thursday email.

“Governor DeWine and other state-level stakeholders have worked together to limit the operations of private businesses and entities and restricted personal movement of people through the shelter in place orders,” Rosnick said. “Governor DeWine and other stakeholders trusted they had that authority, surely they can review their legal options and move quickly for incarcerated populations.”

Piet van Lier, a research consultant with Policy Matters Ohio, condemned the governor’s slow action and many restrictions on those eligible to be released, saying he “is risking turning low-level prison sentences into death sentences.”

“Gov. DeWine should focus on releasing people with the lowest risk of recidivism and those with the highest risk to contract COVID-19 while incarcerated, without all the conditions he has placed on the categories he has already identified,” van Lier said in an email to The Appeal.

For people incarcerated in the state’s 28 correctional facilities, conditions are becoming critical. Almost 300 people incarcerated in Lake Erie Correctional Institution submitted a petition to DeWine on April 6 “requesting that immediate action be taken to address what is on the brink of becoming a humanitarian crisis.” According to the petition, many of the roughly 2,000 incarcerated people at Lake Erie are not only already ill, but are also being released into the general population without being tested for COVID-19.

The petition says that prisoners “literally sleep within inches of one another in an open-dorm setting. Social distancing is impossible, as prisons such as ours were not designed to combat contagions.” The petition was initiated by Brett McClafferty, a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging abuse and medical malpractice while he was housed in the Portage County Jail.

Others have appealed to the governor on Twitter. On March 24, Chazidy Bowman shared a picture of her husband, Rufus Bowman, who she says is incarcerated in an Ohio prison and lives with “acute, severe asthma. If he is affected by this, it could ultimately kill him.” Bowman begs the governor: “Please, please we are urging you to listen to us and release them.”

Last month, Kevin Ballou, who said he had been incarcerated at Marion for five years, posted a video on Twitter asking for “oversight and accountability.” Ballou said he has spoken to three incarcerated people at three different facilities, saying that, according to them, they don’t have access to medical or dental treatment. “I’ve seen firsthand the neglect that happens on a regular basis,” even before COVID-19 started sweeping through Ohio’s prisons, he said.

Last week, a family member of one incarcerated man told The Appeal that they also reached out to the man’s judge, an advocacy organization, two state representatives, and “sent many emails to the point that I am so stressed and discombobulated I’ve lost track of whom I contacted.”

The family member shared an April 1 email from the incarcerated man who states that he is experiencing many of the symptoms of COVID-19 including trouble breathing and chest pains. “I have been dealing with it for over a week,” the email says, “but they won’t even see us at the medbay if we don’t have an outrageous fever.”

“Nobody knows what is happening to us,” he said in the email. “People are passing out in my unit everyday.”

The family member asked that they and the incarcerated man remain anonymous. “Since I started contacting ppl about the situation, he’s been harassed by some of the staff,” the family member said.

Prison staff are also calling on DeWine to protect their welfare. They say incarcerated people aren’t the only ones being left without the means to protect themselves, and have expressed concern both about their health and the health of their families and communities. They also say they worry about their ability to keep prison facilities running in the event that enough of them become ill.

During a press conference held on Monday by the ACLU of Ohio, Policy Matters Ohio, and other advocates, Carter Stewart, a former U.S. attorney, said,  “Law enforcement personnel who work at the state prisons are putting themselves, their families and their communities at risk. The more staff that get sick, the less capable prison leadership becomes in terms of running and managing the prison.” Stewart is a volunteer with Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a criminal justice reform organization for current and former law enforcement professionals.

The president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association told the Ohio Capital Journal on April 8 that, “It’s become a Facebook meme — we’re not essential, we’re sacrificial. That’s the feeling of people right now.”

In an April 7 update to its membership, the union reported that the state’s Department of Corrections was requiring staff members to supply their own face masks. The union announced that it was stepping in and had authorized funds to purchase masks for members.