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Coronavirus In Ohio: Prison Employees Union Worried About Working Conditions

Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.

Twelve Ohio state prisons, housing nearly 17,000 inmates, are under quarantine as the coronavirus spreads throughout the prison system.

“Right now, it’s a little bit frantic inside of our facilities,” says Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. "I mean the lack of testing, the lack of the ability of proper social distancing inside our prisons. The changing of policies, processes and procedures every day.”

OCSEA represents 8,500 corrections officers within state prisons as well as 576 within the Department of Youth Services.

As of Monday, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections reports 146 inmates and 119 staff members tested positive for COVID-19, while one corrections officer and one inmate have died.

So far, only 435 inmates have been tested at Ohio's 28 state prison facilities, out of more than 49,000 inmates.

“Judging from the past few weeks, I don’t know if there are enough tests available to test the amount of institutions under what the department has now identified as red,” says Mabe.

Mabe says he would like to see stricter rules in a facility when under quarantine.

“More limited movement inside the facilities,” Mabe says. “Some isolation areas where people have tested positive. Stricter quarantine to keep people that may have tested positive away from those who have not. It’s very difficult inside our ecosystem.”

Mabe says OCSEA approached prison officials weeks ago about providing face masks, but says there currently aren’t enough for the corrections officers.

Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the ODRC, told WOSU in March that inmates would receive cotton materials to sew their own masks starting April 15.

Last week, the directors of ODRC and Youth Services raised hazard pay for corrections officers on a sliding scale of 5-10% percent of their regular pay. Those who work in a quarantined facility get the highest increase. Leaders also approved 40 hours of federal emergency sick leave for employees affected by quarantine.

Mabe says the union was not included in those decisions. Without more testing, he says the real danger of the coronavirus remains unknown. Mabe is concerned that his members will not be heard, and that the pandemic will only worsen existing problems in the prison system.

“Frustration, fear,” Mabe says. “A lot of mandatory overtime, more so than usual. I mean, we’ve not been properly staffed for years inside our system.”

What questions do you have about the coronavirus in Ohio? Ask WOSU below as part of our Curious Cbus series.


Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.