Ohio prison workers union says safety concerns are being dismissed

Photo from the Elkton prison website.

Union workers with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction say they are not given proper personal protective equipment and that state officials have disregarded their concerns. 

SEIU District 1199 — a union representing health care workers and staff members with ODRC — said in a press release that the state only supplies cloth facial coverings or surgical masks to prison employees, which are inferior to N-95 masks. N-95 masks, which greatly protect the wearer against COVID-19, are provided at the discretion of administrators and staff are being asked to reuse protective equipment, according to the release. 

“Having the proper protective equipment is of the highest importance,” Joshua Norris, executive vice president for SEIU District 1199, said. “Staff members would be much more protected if they were properly equipped with N-95 respirators and face shields. … We believe there is not a strong justification for having workers go without them.” 

Prison populations across the country have been hotspots for coronavirus, and SEIU District 1199 claims this, coupled with “harmful management decisions within ODRC facilities,” puts prison staff at heightened risks. 

“These workers do not know who is positive in these facilities and who is not,” Anthony Caldwell, the union’s director of public affairs, said. “It is impossible for staff members to protect themselves without further mitigation. More must be done to protect them — they are heroes on the frontlines, but their voices are being disregarded.” 

ODRC spokeswoman Sara French said the department was not aware staff were being forced to reuse their masks for multiple days, and added that new, disposable masks are provided each day. French said the department is following Ohio Department of Health guidelines. 

In mid-March, the ODRC confirmed a staff member at Marion Correctional Institution tested positive for COVID-19. Over a month later, nearly 2,000 inmates and 150 staff at the facility tested positive for the virus. As of the department’s July 15 report, there were 77 confirmed COVID-19 related inmate deaths and five staff deaths across the states’ 27 prisons and affiliated medical centers.

In April, Ohio led the nation in confirmed cases among incarcerated persons, and it remains one of only a handful of states testing prison and jail populations, according to The Marshall Project. Gov. Mike DeWine has since petitioned the state to release nearly 200 inmates who are non-repeat and non-violent offenders and nearing their original release date. 

An exploratory report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in conjunction with a staff of epidemiologists, mathematicians and statisticians, projects 23,000 incarcerated people could die from COVID-19 nationwide if unmediated. 

Overcrowding, lack of access to hygiene, and substandard health care make jails and prisons potential time bombs for any outbreak, let alone the deadly coronavirus,” the ACLU report read. 

“Correctional staff come to work every day and then return home,” it continued. “People are frequently brought in on arrest and released if they can pay bail or held for short stays. Any of these individuals can easily and unknowingly bring the virus into a jail, where infections can spread rapidly.”

While numbers of cases among inmates in Ohio’s prison system have plateaued, cases among staff have increased steadily since early June, according to The Marshall Project

“… Conditions are now more hazardous than when they began to work from home,” Norris said. “With many safety concerns, large groups of inmates in quarantine, and nearly 100 lives lost, the health and safety concerns of these workers must be heard. Our members signed up to serve their fellow Ohioans but not to be casualties of a pandemic. We can’t forget them.”