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Ohio Prison Director Wants Inmates In Next Round Of COVID-19 Vaccines

Marion Correctional Institution
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections
Marion Correctional Institution

When Ohio gets its first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine, medical professionals, residents and staff at long-term care facilities and EMS workers will be first in line. But it’s unclear where those in the more controversial congregate setting of prisons might end up on the vaccine priority list.

Ohio prisons have experienced some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks of any prison system in the country. So far, the state has reported 109 confirmed inmate deaths from COVID-19, and another eight probable COVID deaths.

Seven prison workers have also died of COVID, including two at the end of November. 

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director Annette Chambers-Smith said that, although it may be a challenge when discussing vaccine priority for offenders, she’ll push for inmates and workers to be near the top for the next round of vaccines.

“I definitely will be advocating for DRC to be a part of that mix," Chambers-Smith said. "We’re obviously a congregate setting. We obviously have people that have died. Congregate settings are just more vulnerable.”

Gov. Mike DeWine has said prison staff will be a priority for the next batch of vaccines, but he’s not sure about inmates.

The latest numbers show that 615 staff and 466 inmates are COVID-positive. Thousands more have tested positive since the pandemic began, including Chambers-Smith herself.

Two of Ohio's prisons, the Marion Correctional Facility and the Pickaway Correctional Institution, became national hotspots early in the pandemic, in part because of mass testing at those facilities.

The prison population is lower than it's been in 15 years. Chambers-Smith said it's gone down by about 5,000 people during the pandemic, and that's because of several factors, including fewer trials and some judicial releases of inmates near the end of their sentences.