Ohio needs a systemic, statewide approach to keep incarcerated people safe from COVID-19

March 27, 2020 12:15 am

Stock photo from Getty Images.

A recent Great Lakes poll shows that 80% of Ohioans approve of the job Gov. Mike DeWine is doing during the coronavirus pandemic. Large majorities support school closings, limits on public gatherings, and other measures the state has taken.

What’s missing from DeWine’s response is a focus on the risks facing our incarcerated neighbors and the workers who come into contact with them. This omission risks lives both inside and outside of our state’s prisons, jails and other detention facilities.

All people, whether they are in their homes or incarcerated, have the right to be safe and cared for during the pandemic. That’s why DeWine and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, in coordination with state and local court and law enforcement authorities, must quickly address the risks in state facilities where adults and youth are being held. 

These facilities can be disease incubators for people who are incarcerated and staff. Workers who are exposed can carry the virus home, spreading disease to their families and communities. Making matters worse, incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Because disease can spread quickly in crowded facilities, they’re likely to produce large numbers of patients at the same time, overwhelming not only institutional health care systems but the capacity of nearby hospitals to which they may be transferred. Once jails and prisons are overwhelmed, what starts there can spread to the broader community.

So far, most of DeWine’s focus has been on cutting off in-person visits and reducing contact with the outside world. DeWine has said it’s up to local authorities to address the issue in jails, and some have reduced jail populations with early release and limits on new commitments, most notably in Cuyahoga County.

For her part, O’Connor has called for a uniform approach among judges to the pandemic and to follow the lead of Cuyahoga County, which has postponed foreclosure proceedings and most jury trials, and expanded the use of video and telephone conferences.

Another critical step is transparency. The state has started to release data on testing and quarantines in facilities operated by and for the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the Department of Youth Services, although the data show that only 16 incarcerated adults out of nearly 50,000 people in prison and one youth have been tested. Local jails, halfway houses, and other facilities should be just as transparent. 

But transparency is not enough. Both DeWine and O’Connor should take every possible action at the state level and raise their voices to push local authorities to protect local populations.

In addition to making sure incarcerated people and facility staff are educated about the spread of the virus and providing prompt medical attention and cleaning, the focus should be on releasing those who pose the least threat to their communities and keeping people newly charged with nonviolent crimes out of the system

To address this crisis statewide, the relevant state or local authorities should: 

  • Release, at minimum, those who are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses with fewer than 90 days left to serve and people being held because they couldn’t make bail.
  • Stop detaining people before their trials for nonviolent offenses.
  • Decrease the number of people being incarcerated who don’t require immediate confinement, especially by eliminating cash bail and using alternative sentences for people facing nonviolent charges.
  • Stop incarcerating people for technical violations of probation and parole such as failure to pay a fine, loss of employment, or a missed curfew.
  • Review for release vulnerable individuals, particularly the elderly and those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater danger of succumbing to COVID-19. 

Of course, it is not enough to simply release people back to their communities. In the face of this pandemic, our leaders must ensure newly freed individuals are connected to appropriate health care services and ways to meet other basic needs.  

Much has been done in some local courts. But short-term, isolated fixes are not enough. Ohioans need a systemic, coordinated statewide response that explicitly includes our incarcerated neighbors in Ohio’s public health response to the spread of coronavirus. 

Now more than ever, Ohio’s leaders, statewide and local, have to base our public policies on evidence about what works and the reality that, as DeWine says, we are all in this together.

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Piet van Lier
Piet van Lier

Piet van Lier is a researcher for Policy Matters Ohio. He has spent more than 20 years working as a nonprofit leader, researcher, advocate and journalist in Ohio.