Ohio prison in quarantine as governor mulls coronavirus policies

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Nearly 2,500 inmates in an Ohio prison are in quarantine after a staffer at the prison tested positive for coronavirus, the first such case in the state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC).

The quarantine at Marion Correctional Institution came amid a steady rise in coronavirus cases and a shortage of testing and personal protective equipment across the state.

In a news conference Tuesday, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said his state had over 2,200 cases and 55 deaths. Nearly 20 percent of coronavirus patients in Ohio have been health care workers or first responders. At least one ODRC staffer has tested positive.

No inmates have yet tested positive for the virus, though three in separate prisons are isolated while awaiting the results of tests. According to data released this week, only 25 of more than 48,000 inmates in Ohio have been tested for coronavirus.

The ODRC began preparing for the coronavirus crisis earlier this year when the gravity of the pandemic was becoming apparent. A spokesperson said the agency disinfects common areas and surfaces, implemented health screening for all inmates entering the prison from court hearings, as well as a mandatory 5-week period where new inmates will be isolated to monitor any symptoms that may emerge.

“Prisons and jails can be disease incubators for people who are incarcerated and staff."

— Piet van Lier, researcher with Policy Matters Ohio

“Testing is conducted based on symptoms,” JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the ODRC, said in an email. “We are working closely with the Ohio Department of Health and local health departments; and Director [Annette] Chambers-Smith communicates regularly with her colleagues across the country.”

Though Ohio has been among the most proactive states responding to the virus, its plans to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in the prison system has drawn criticism from some progressive organizations.

“Prisons and jails can be disease incubators for people who are incarcerated and staff,” Piet van Lier, a researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, said in a news release. “Incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Because disease can spread quickly in crowded jails and prisons, they’re likely to produce large numbers of patients at the same time, overwhelming not only institutional health care systems but the capacity of nearby hospitals to which they may be transferred.”

“We are in groups of 210, could be more, and we sleep next to one and other. We eat off the same plates and forks. All it will take is one of us to git this and the whole prison will have it.”

— Anonymous inmate in a letter addressed to Gov. DeWine

A recent letter from an incarcerated individual received and published by Policy Matters Ohio said that conditions in at least one Ohio prison are ripe for a contagion to spread.

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“We are in groups of 210, could be more, and we sleep next to one and other,” wrote the man, whose identity was not made available. “We eat off the same plates and forks. All it will take is one of us to git [sic] this and the whole prison will have it.”

An anonymous letter written by an inmate addressed to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, dated March 23, 2020. (Policy Matters Ohio)

An anonymous letter written by an inmate addressed to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, dated March 23, 2020. (Policy Matters Ohio)

In the letter, dated March 23 and addressed to Gov. DeWine, the man said he has asthma and is especially susceptible to the virus. The man also said he is incarcerated at North Central Prison in Marion, Ohio, which is less than a mile from Marion Correctional Institution. It’s unclear if the prisons share staff in any capacity.

In a press conference Tuesday, Gov. DeWine said he and his team would release policy for prisons and jails soon. He said decisions about a prisoner’s release would be made on a case-by-case basis and take into consideration their age and how much time is left on their sentence.

“We are not going to turn loose sexual predators,” DeWine said. “We will be very careful about how we are looking at this.”

"We are not going to turn loose sexual predators. We will be very careful about how we are looking at this." 

— Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on releasing prisoners amid coronavirus.

Gov. DeWine’s office did not return a request for comment or answer a detailed list of questions regarding testing in Ohio’s prisons.

Potentially compounding issues in the event of an outbreak is the age of some prisoners. Nearly a quarter of Ohio’s inmates are older than 50 years old, according to the agency’s most recently available data from 2018.

Demographic data for Marion Correctional Institution, Ohio’s quarantined prison, was not readily available. The prison did not respond to requests for comment.

A recent study by researchers at Imperial College London further confirmed what’s long been reported: COVID-19 is more lethal in elderly populations, especially in those over 70 years old. The recent paper found that 4 percent of patients infected with the coronavirus died, while that number nearly doubled to 8.6 percent of patients over 70.

In patients over 80 years old, the death rate skyrocketed to over 13 percent. Overall, the coronavirus death rate has remained around 1.4 percent, according to estimates by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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The study also found that hospitalization rates are starkly divided by age, with more than 8.2 percent of patients in their 50s requiring it. Only 4.3 percent of patients in their 40s required hospitalization. That number jumped to 12 percent for people in their 60s.

Contacts in the ODRC and the governor’s office declined to answer questions about whether the state would expand testing for older prisoners or those under quarantine at Marion Correctional Institution.