HIV positive inmate to Ohio Supreme Court: people will die here in a pandemic

Immigration detainees at the Eloy federal contract prison. Photo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Derek Lichtenwalter is serving 30 months for leading police on a lengthy chase, but he says the pandemic has turned 2.5 years into a death sentence.

Lichtenwalter says his HIV diagnosis coupled with a worsening COVID-19 pandemic has turned the stretch into an extremely dangerous situation.  

Citing an overcrowded prison system that makes social distancing an impossibility, he’s asking the Ohio Supreme Court to secure his release.

Current CDC guidance says that at the present time, they have no specific information about the risk of COVID-19 in people with HIV, but with other viral respiratory infections, the risk for people with HIV getting very sick is greatest in those who are not on treatment or who otherwise have a low CD4 (white blood cell) count. Health experts say people who are immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to the disease.

Lichtenwalter, 44, put it bluntly.

“(It) is a higher rate than if I played Russian roulette,” he said.

“Please understand that there is no way that once the coronavirus, COVID-19 gets to prison, it will be able to be contained, and once it spreads, many will die who need not, and who otherwise would be home within a few months to a few years.”

The Supreme Court ordered Gov. Mike DeWine, who is named in the lawsuit, to respond by Monday. A DeWine spokesman declined comment Thursday.

Lichtenwalter’s lawsuit underscores a problem that bedevils the state as it plans for COVID-19 related deaths, hospital rushes, and widespread infections: how do you get institutions like crowded jails to comport with public health measures of keeping humans apart?

DeWine issued an order March 15 banning visitation in state detention centers.

Different jails around the state, per a request of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to all Ohio courts, have released some non-violent offenders and people especially vulnerable to the virus.

This week, the ACLU of Ohio has pressured DeWine for more information about the status of the virus in Ohio’s prisons, jails and youth facilities.

On Thursday, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction began posting this information. As of Thursday afternoon, ODRC has tested 17 people. Four tests are pending, 13 came back negative.

Of the four, two are in isolation at Noble Correctional Institution, one at Dayton Correctional Institution, and one at Grafton Correctional Institution.

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, said cases like Lichtenwalter’s are exactly why the ACLU of Ohio and others are pushing to depopulate jails.

“The very conditions brought about by mass incarceration make everyone in a prison or jail vulnerable,” he said in an email. “Unfortunately, jails and prison are already full of people with existing, and many times serious, health problems making them the most vulnerable of all.”

State data released Thursday afternoon shows 867 Ohioans have tested positive for the disease. Fifteen people have died, and 223 have been hospitalized — 91 of whom have required ICU care.

In a Friday opinion piece, Piet Van Lier of Policy Matters Ohio said incarceration centers can serve as “disease incubators” and called on the criminal justice system to release several different classes of nonviolent offenders to prevent spread of the disease.

Lichtenwalter was accused of leading authorities on an hour-long pursuit in March 2019, according to a report from The Daily Jeffersonian. It started when a state trooper recognized the man’s truck as reportedly stolen.

For information on COVID-19 in Ohio and copies of all public health orders, you can visit the state’s coronavirus website here

For information on how to avoid the virus, what symptoms are like and what to do if you think you’re infected, you can go to the CDC’s COVID-19 page here.