‘Ambulances leaving at all hours’ from Ohio federal prison, a COVID-19 hotbed

By: - April 16, 2020 12:30 am

Federal Correctional Institution, Elkton. Photo from the Elkton prison website.

Craig Wilson, 42, is about halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for possession of methamphetamine and a firearm. 

He’s afraid he won’t survive until early 2026, when he’s slated for release. “I feel like I’ve been handed a death sentence,” Wilson said in a recent court filing

He’s one of about 2,400 inmates currently incarcerated at the Elkton federal prison in Lisbon, Ohio. At least five Elkton inmates had died as of Wednesday from COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19, and the facility continues to be one of the hardest-hit U.S. federal prisons by the pandemic. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnso, (R-OH)
Photo of Ohio U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, left, by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website said Tuesday that 36 inmates and 26 staff members at Elkton had contracted the disease. But Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Marietta), whose district includes the facility, said in an interview that 56 inmates had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. 

In statements filed with the court this week, Elkton prisoners depicted a dire scene, where inmates are cramped, sick and fearful for their lives. 

Wilson described “complete chaos” at the prison since the virus began to spread inside. 

Social distancing isn’t possible in his housing unit with open dorms and 10 sinks for 150 people, he said. Inmates aren’t allowed to go outside and they stand in tight lines to get meals and medications. The entire unit shares four phones and four computers. And the prison commissary is shut down, so inmates can’t buy additional soap or sanitary equipment. 

The number of people showing symptoms “is staggering,” he said, and there are “ambulances leaving at all hours.” 

Wilson — who has suffered from chronic asthma since childhood and has had to use inhalers, steroids and breathing machines at times — knows that he’s in a high-risk category for COVID-19. “I’m afraid that if I catch it, I will die,” he said.

He’s one of several inmates who filed an emergency petition this week with a federal court in Ohio, asking for the immediate release of some Elkton residents, including those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

The Trump administration has ordered the Bureau of Prisons to push for federal inmates’ early release in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus. Attorney General William Barr called for officials to prioritize the release of prisoners in facilities that had been most impacted by COVID-19 — including the Elkton site. But advocates say the administration’s response hasn’t been swift enough or expansive enough to protect vulnerable inmates. 

“I think it’s always critical to remember that the Constitution does not stop outside the prison walls,” said David Carey, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Ohio. The “Constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment” requires safe living quarters for inmates — “including protection from dangerous infectious diseases,” Carey and other attorneys representing Elkton inmates wrote in the court filing.  

5 deaths reported

Stock photo from Getty Images.

One recent report of an inmate death due to COVID-19 at Elkton was on Monday. Alvin Turner, 43, had been at the Ohio prison since last June after he was sentenced for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Turner had long-term, preexisting medical conditions, which are risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, according to the Bureau of Prisons. David Ehle, 71, died on April 14.

Three other inmates — Frank McCoy, 76; Margarito Garcia-Fragoso, 65; and Woodrow Taylor, 53 — died on April 2. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced last week that he had authorized the Ohio National Guard to assist with the outbreak in Elkton. 

The Elkton Federal Correctional Institution is a low-security facility that currently houses about 2,000 male offenders. The adjacent Federal Satellite Low facility currently houses about 400 low-security male offenders. 

Kendal Nelson, 46, shared a “pod” with Taylor before Taylor’s death earlier this month, Nelson said in the court filing. “Woodrow had a bad heart and a bad kidney, just like me, and the fact that he died makes me scared,” Nelson said. 

Nelson suffers from coronary artery disease, asthma, sleep apnea and chronic kidney disease. He had a heart attack several years ago. 

He also described a grim scenario inside Elkton. “Prisoners are being fed small portions of food, with no ability to get more. We have no way to get cleaning supplies, and the living area is filthy with no surfaces being cleaned. Our water pipes burst, and different colors of water have come out of the pipes. Men are developing rashes that we think are from the water,” he said. 

Neither the prisoners nor the correctional officers have masks, Nelson said, and many of the people in his pod appear to be sick. “The only thing I can do is stay in my cell under the blankets all the time so I can have some barrier between me and everyone else.”

Prisoners were told in a memo that a correctional officer had brought COVID-19 into the facility in January, Nelson said. 

Maximino Nieves, a 46-year-old inmate who signed on to the lawsuit asking for early release, is slated for release from Elkton next February, according to the Bureau of Prisons. 

Earlier this month, he was one of more than a dozen inmates told he was going to be moved out. They were told by a prison official, “You guys are not coming back, say your goodbyes,” Nieves said in the legal filing. They were set up with cots and quarantined in the visiting room from April 4 until April 8. Then, five people, including Nieves, were moved back into the unit without “any explanation of why,” he said. 

Court involvement

Photo by Getty Images.

Early this month, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered the release of Jeremy Rodriguez, an Elkton inmate who was in his 17th year of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug distribution and unlawful firearm possession, and was a year away from becoming eligible for home confinement. Rodriguez also has diabetes, high blood pressure and liver abnormalities. 

“Mr. Rodriguez has now served the lion’s share of his sentence,” the judge wrote. “But his sentence did not include incurring a great and unforeseen risk of severe illness or death.” 

That opinion gives Carey at the ACLU hope “that the courts are cognizant to people like our clients,” he said. 

Since the release of Barr’s March directive to prioritize home confinement for prisoners, the Bureau of Prisons has placed an additional 1,022 federal inmates on home confinement, according to the BOP website on Tuesday night. 

Asked about how many inmates from Elkton had been placed on home confinement due to the outbreak, BOP spokesman Scott Taylor said the bureau does not provide those figures by institution. 

The Bureau of Prisons, Taylor said, is “deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families, and the communities we live and work in.” He said that Elkton and all the other federal prisons are implementing BOP guidance to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Johnson, the 6th District congressman, lauded the state and federal response to the outbreak. 

“I think the Bureau of Prisons has jumped into high gear,” he told the Capital Journal in an interview Tuesday. “I’m pleased with the response, and I think everything that can be done is being done.” 

Still, he said, there are remaining concerns about the safety of the inmates, the staff and the surrounding community. “We ‘ve got to keep our foot on the throat of this virus,” he said. 

Johnson said that about half of the inmates at Elkton came in with preexisting health conditions that put them at increased risk from COVID-19. He lauded the Bureau of Prison’s move to stop accepting new inmates to the facility. “There was no reason to put more people at risk,” he said. 

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman also welcomed the decision to halt the arrival of new inmates, his spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach said in an email. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has been critical of the administration’s response to combating COVID-19 in prisons. 

“I wrote to the Trump Administration weeks ago, urging the Federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize the safety of everyone in their facilities. And instead of taking precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the administration has been slow to take action,” he said in a statement. “I’ll continue working to ensure the Federal Correction Institution at Elkton has the resources it needs to stop the spread of COVID-19 within the facility, and keep everyone there safe.”

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.