31 dead, thousands infected in Ohio prisons; counts climb at five facilities

Belmont Correctional Institution. Source: ODRC

The outbreaks in Ohio’s prisons worsened Wednesday as COVID-19 illnesses turned to deaths in two facilities and a newer outbreak snowballed in another.

Two prison workers and 29 inmates have died since officials detected the new coronavirus that causes the disease in the prison system March 29. A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections said Wednesday another 97 are hospitalized. 

The deaths mostly trace back to Marion Correctional Institution, where nearly 80% of the 2,500 inmates have confirmed cases; and Pickaway Correctional Institution, where nearly 75% of the 2,000 inmates have confirmed cases.

Mass testing at the two facilities in early April shined a light on just how deeply the new coronavirus penetrated the two facilities. Both prisons, like many in Ohio, are overcrowded, rendering social distancing nearly impossible.

Statewide, nearly 3,900 of the state’s 49,000 inmates have confirmed cases. About 170 have recovered. At least 419 prison workers have confirmed cases, 124 of whom have recovered.

Now, Belmont Correctional Institution looks to be in increasingly bad shape, with 39 confirmed cases and six tests pending. The facility had virtually no cases present as recently as about two weeks ago.

Prison planning documents and recent population reports show the Belmont facility houses 150% of the inmates it’s designed for.

Derrick Miles, an inmate who said he’s eligible for release to a halfway home in October, said he’s bracing for becoming infected. With the crowded facility, lack of hygienic supplies, shared bathrooms and showers, and communal eating, he said there’s no way to execute social distancing in prison.

“We can lay on our racks and hold each other’s hands. That’s how close we are together,” he said in an interview.

Making matters worse, he alleged that the prison is only conducting testing after inmates in the general area exhibit a fever. If they show a fever, they’re quarantined with people with confirmed cases. Meaning even if they test negative, the prison authorities are housing them with the positive cases.

“It doesn’t matter if we have it or not, if we got a temperature of 101, they’re taking us out of there and putting us with the guys that do have it,” he said. “That’s how we catch it.”

ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said there’s a particular unit at Belmont where contract tracing of positive cases determined all residents “had exposure and [are] likely positive.”

She said the unit is being quarantined. She did not respond when asked how many live in this unit. 

Social distancing is uniquely challenging within a correctional environment,” Smith said. “Congregate settings such as prisons are vulnerable to the spread of viruses, which is why we began limiting movement well before we had our first confirmed case. Most of the time, the physical layout of a correctional facility does not lend itself to isolating every inmate at all times, especially in lower level facilities where there is dormitory style living.”

Although Gov. Mike DeWine has said in the past that inmates in any “hotspot” prison would undergo mass testing, a prison spokeswoman did not respond when asked if this would occur at Belmont.

Miles, who is serving a sentence for felonious assault and child endangerment, said he and other inmates have been provided one or two masks that he says fall apart if they get wet.

Two other prisons are experiencing outbreaks as well. At the Correctional Reception Center, 44 inmates and 11 prison workers have confirmed cases.

At Franklin Medical Center, 108 inmates have confirmed cases, two of whom have died. Seventy-four workers have confirmed cases as well.

Statewide, more than 17,000 Ohioans have confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, 937 of whom have died.