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Coronavirus In Ohio: Advocates Demand More Prison Releases As First Inmate Dies

A cell inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Gabe Rosenberg
A cell inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

Prisons and jails have emerged as one of the hot spots of the coronavirus crisis in Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday announced an inmate has died from COVID-19 at the Pickaway Correctional Institute, the first inmate to die in the state prison system.

So far, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections reports 146 inmates and 119 staff members have tested positive, while nearly 17,000 inmates are in quarantine. Last week, an officer at the Marion Correctional Institute died.

Some advocacy groups are alarmed by those numbers, and argue that the state needs to release far more of those behind bars for their safety.

DeWine's recommended releases included about 200 inmates. The governor says he did not include anyone with sex offenses, homicide-related offenses, kidnapping or abduction offenses, ethnic intimidation or domestic violence offenses, nor terrorist threats. 

But groups like Policy Matters Ohio say if you set aside those offenses, there are a lot of folks in prison who didn't make DeWine's list, including the quarter of inmates behind bars for drug-related offenses. 

"You only have to look at our neighboring state of Pennsylvania, where the governor recently released 1,800 incarcerated people to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons," says Piet van Lier, a Policy Matters Ohio researcher. "In contrast, Gov. DeWine has recommended 205 people in very limited categories." 

Many critics argue that inmates should not be released before serving the time for their crimes. 

While advocates say they generally agree, the pandemic is an extraordinary circumstance and some exceptions should be made. Their basic argument is that being in prison does not mean you should lose your right to be healthy and safe during a public health crisis 

With more than 48,000 people in the state's prisons, facilities are overcrowded at around 128% capacity. 

Normal social distancing practices are not an option in prison, and the overcrowding makes it difficult to quarantine or separate those who are exhibiting symptoms from the healthy population. 

To make matters worse, the population of people age 50 and older has doubled since 2003 – it’s projected to reach 10,000 people age 50 and older in prison for the first time in Ohio’s history. People over 50 are more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

"Also at risk are corrections workers, who are every bit as vulnerable as incarcerated people and even front line health care workers," says van Lier. "One Ohio corrections officer died of COVID-19. One hundred tested positive. Union says members are not getting needed masks and are concerned that workers are not eligible for paid sick leave and aren’t receiving hazard pay." 

But the release of a larger population of prisoners carries its own set of challenges, says Gary Daniels of the ACLU of Ohio. Homelessness is a large issue for people leaving the system. 

"Re-entry is a very important aspect of this," Daniels says. "We don’t want people who are vulnerable inside coming outside to similar vulnerable situations where they could be getting other people sick. We don’t want people outside getting sick from people coming from prisons and jails. We’ll need creativity and flexibility when it comes to re-entry."

Advocates estimate that Ohio's prison population may need to be cut in half to properly social distance inmates and slow the spread of COVID-19.