It's not too late to save lives
No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want to protect ourselves and our loved ones so we can stay safe and healthy. The coronavirus pandemic has begun to expose ever more clearly the inequities in our society and could amount to a death sentence for many in our prisons.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine and his team have taken strong, proactive steps to safeguard the health of Ohioans, but they have been slow to extend the same care to people incarcerated in Ohio’s prisons and those who guard and serve them.
This lack of a response to prison conditions now presents a threat to public safety in communities throughout the state because prisons, jails and detention centers are breeding grounds for diseases, like COVID-19, that can subsequently explode into the broader community.
The governor’s announcement on April 3 that he sent letters recommending local judges release 38 incarcerated people – 23 women who are pregnant or in prison with newborns and 15 older individuals who are close to their release dates – does not begin to address the clear, urgent need to reduce the populations in Ohio’s prisons to safeguard incarcerated people and prison workers. Last week, DeWine took this incremental approach a step further, announcing that he was recommending the release of an additional 167 individuals, all of whom either have fewer than 90 days remaining on their sentences or are 60 or older and have chronic health conditions.
This is in contrast to the action of the Pennsylvania governor, who last week authorized the release of up to 1,800 hundred incarcerated people to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
Since mid-March, Policy Matters Ohio has been working in coalition with the ACLU, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Juvenile Justice Coalition and others to advocate for the release of people being held in prisons, jails and other facilities.
As a result, we have been receiving troubling calls and emails from incarcerated people and their families about conditions inside facilities. Last week, we posted one letter from North Central Correctional Institute, a privately operated state prison in Marion. Later the same week, the mother of a man who is incarcerated at Pickaway Correctional Institute forwarded an email from her son about conditions at the prison, describing his own symptoms and fears that he had contracted COVID-19.
“I am extremely weak. Have the worst chest and breathing pains. My eyes are extremely bloodshot. I have completely no sense of taste or smell. Not like with a cold when its hard to smell or taste through congestion. No. I can breathe through my nose fine. No smell or taste. My eyes burn so bad. They are keeping people scared to make noise about it with the threat that they won’t get released with the govoners releases but its to the point where I’m getting so bad it won’t matter. Somebody has to do something.”
Since we received this email and it was featured in a Fox News story, the number of incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19 in Ohio’s prisons has rapidly increased. Reports indicate that the first incarcerated person in a state prison died Monday, April 13. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) reported that as of Sunday 67 people being held in Ohio prison facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 and that 12 prison facilities, including Marion and Pickaway, have been put under full quarantine. Gov. DeWine has announced testing of people incarcerated at just five of Ohio’s prison facilities.
Prison workers are also at risk: 100 prison staff have tested positive and one has died, and a union official said corrections officers are not being supplied with masks they need to stay safe. Other labor issues include paid sick leave and hazard pay. Given how quickly the virus spreads in densely populated settings like prisons, jobs in these facilities are every bit as risky as frontline health care jobs, and workers should be provided meaningful protection.
On Monday, we and our coalition partners joined Ohioans with incarcerated loved ones to hold a press call to continue to urge Gov. DeWine to quickly release people who are unlikely to commit new crimes or at high risk for contracting COVID-19.
While the governor has moved much too slowly to protect incarcerated people and prison workers in Ohio, it’s never too late to save lives.
In this moment of crisis, it is critical that the state take a safe and responsible approach to release that includes support for health care, housing and other basic needs. It is important to understand that homeless populations face difficult conditions during this crisis, and ensure that solutions don’t simply displace the problem from one vulnerable population to another. We also must support the needs of corrections workers. This will help keep our families and communities safer from the spread of COVID-19. The time to release large segments of Ohio’s incarcerated population is now.