Ohio prisons see rise in coronavirus infections, deaths while union questions state leadership

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At least one inmate and one corrections officer have died after contracting COVID-19 in prisons run by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC). The deaths come while dozens of prisons grapple with a coronavirus rapidly spreading through overcrowded quarters and employee unions question ODRC leadership.

To date, only 435 ODRC inmates have been tested, with 146 being positive for COVID-19. More than 16,000 prisoners across the state are under 12 prison-wide quarantines, according to ODRC data. 119 staff members have reported positive tests. 

The prison system has nearly 50,000 inmates, a number some advocates in Ohio say is 10,000 over capacity. The outbreaks have put employees and elected officials in a bind. Ohio has been a vanguard in coronavirus response under Gov. Mike DeWine’s leadership. Still, critics said the prison system has been the state institution least buoyed by the Republican governor’s decisive actions.

For weeks, advocates and activists have called for him to release prisoners who have a low risk of recidivism and a high risk of severe coronavirus complications. This number would far outpace the roughly 200 prisoners whom DeWine has recommended for release.

OHIO INMATE ALLEGES COVID-19 OUTBREAK IN PRISON

“Locking down prisons, where there is no room to keep a safe distance from others, will not help save lives in prisons, and could actually make conditions worse given the fact that there are nearly 49,000 people in facilities designed for 38,000,” said Piet van Lier, a researcher with the liberal think taznk Policy Matters Ohio.

“The total of 205 people the governor has recommended for release won’t create the kind of conditions or flexibility needed to flatten the curve in prisons, which is what’s needed to protect incarcerated people, prison workers and the broader community,” he continued.

The Ohio Organizing Collaborative, ACLU of Ohio, Juvenile Justice Coalition, Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) and Faith in Public Life joined Policy Matters Ohio in a tele-press conference to call on Gov. DeWine to do more for incarcerated Ohioans.

“Right now, it seems like there’s a lack of direction, a lack of leadership from the top down." 

— Christopher Mabe, OCSEA president.

Prisoners and prison workers alike have lamented the conditions that have caused the deadly virus to spread through a dozen institutions across the state. The head of the state’s largest union of prison workers said the organization has purchased tens of thousands of N95 masks to supply its members.

“Right now, it seems like there’s a lack of direction, a lack of leadership from the top down,” said Christopher Mabe, a former corrections officers and now president of the Ohio Civil Services Employees Association. The union represents about 30,000 public employees in state and local governments across Ohio, including corrections officers and staff.

He said the ODRC system is overtasked by a lack of staffing and a large amount of inmates, problems compounded by a lack of personal protective equipment and clusters of employees self-quarantining.

“We have several grievances at current time dealing with the director’s implementation of policies,” Mabe said.

(Courtesy: OCSEA) Ohio Civil Service Employees Association President Christpoher Mabe said the union plans to file grievances against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections for their handling of COVID-19 in prison.

(Courtesy: OCSEA) Ohio Civil Service Employees Association President Christpoher Mabe said the union plans to file grievances against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections for their handling of COVID-19 in prison.

He said the union has been upended by unilateral decisions that have taken away the seat at the table for his members. He plans to file unfair labor practice grievances against the ODRC for what he says have been unilateral decisions by Director Annette Chambers-Smith.

“We’ve always in the past had a seat at the table,” Mabe said. “… We are professionals, we’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”

The ODRC confirmed that it has received formal grievances from the OCSEA. It also rebuffed claims by inmates that the prison system removed hand sanitizer from gathering areas.

Requests for comment from Gov. DeWine’s office went unanswered.

Mabe’s concerns are echoed by inmates and their loved ones. One prisoner, who will remain anonymous and spoke exclusively to Fox News, said his prison’s quarantine has been rendered ineffective by a constant shuffling of inmates from one housing unit to another.

The inmate said the population in his housing unit has risen by more than 20 and prisoners are sleeping on bunks less than three feet from one another. No bed is unoccupied, he said.

“People are on the brink of rioting. We’ve been on lockdown for about a week now, like around the clock lockdown.”

— Ohio inmate to Fox News.

He ran down a litany of issues, from fewer meals and cramped quarters to rising tensions and inadequate medical treatment. Inmates used to be called for meals three times a day, but amid a prison-wide lockdown, that’s decreased to just once for breakfast around noon and again for dinner around 9 p.m.

The ODRC confirmed that meals have been reduced to just twice a day, but a spokesperson said the two meals are roughly a caloric equivalent of three meals.

Another issue raised by inmates is the lack of COVID-19 testing, instead telling Fox News that medical personnel would deny testing unless the inmate exhibited every symptom of a severe coronavirus case.

"Incarcerated individuals who test positive to COVID-19 are placed in medical isolation and provided any necessary medical treatment," ODRC spokesperson JoEllen Smith told Fox News in an email. "Speciality care and hospitalization services are provided at either local hospitals or the Ohio State University Medical Center.

"All testing is based on symptoms and based on the medical judgment of a physician or nurse practitioner," she continued.

Inmates told Fox News they were hesitant of reporting COVID-19 symptoms to medical staff out of fears they'd be thrown into isolated quarters typically used for punishment.

“People are on the brink of rioting,” the inmate said. “We’ve been on lockdown for about a week now, like around the clock lockdown.”

Mabe confirmed that special response teams have been called over the past week.

“A couple of our institutions over the last week have had to call in our special response teams to defuse some situations,” he said.

Taken together, their red flags paint a picture of an overpopulated and understaffed system overrun by a deadly virus. Testing is woefully short of being enough to generate enough data to effectively mitigated the spread of COVID-19, and they say the same leadership that helped nonincarcerated Ohio avoid the worst of coronavirus has been sorely lacking in the prisons.

“It probably would’ve worked if they locked people down where they were. They’ve had us on lockdown but they’ve moving people.”

— Ohio inmate to Fox News about ODRC prison quarantines.

“They were poorly prepared for this because they weren’t taking it seriously,” the inmate said. “It probably would’ve worked if they locked people down where they were. They’ve had us on lockdown but they’ve moving people.”

The fiancé of a second inmate at the same prison as the first inmate we spoke to said what distancing measures were in place, that inmates sleep head to toe in the bunks, weren’t being enforced. She reinforced what both said about low staffing and rising tensions.

“The guards are definitely more on edge,” she told Fox News. “There’s less staff because the guards are not coming in. They’re home sick or quarantined or whatever. The ones who are there are visibly more on edge. They’re handling it the best they can, but they’re not really trained to do this sort of thing.”

The woman asked that her and her fiancé’s identity not be disclosed out of fear of retribution against him.

"Hopeless is a good word. Frustrated is another good word."

— Fiance of an Ohio inmate to Fox News.

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 has upended life for everyone across the nation. Largely, the American people have been able to adapt. Inmates in Ohio, however, have been similarly upended but their ability to adapt has been allegedly hamstrung by ODRC leadership, and now the consequences have become deadly.

“Hopeless is a good word,” the fiancé of the Ohio inmate said. “Frustrating is another good word. … I really feel for any of the guys who get a positive diagnosis because I don’t know how they’re going to get any kind of sanitary care, let alone good treatment. And it’s terrifying.”