Ohio’s statewide COVID-19 response failed incarcerated Ohioans

A screenshot captures a crowded bay in Marion Correction Institution where social distancing was all but impossible as the prison's coronavirus outbreak spiraled. Photo provided by an incarcerated person's family.

In just over the course of a year since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported, the United States now leads the world with the highest death toll from the virus, as the country surpassed 400,000 COVID-19 related deaths on Jan. 19, 2021. This is comparable to the number of people that died serving this country in World War II over the course of several years. 

On that same day in Ohio, there were at least 4,989 new COVID-19 cases and 55 additional COVID-19 deaths reported. This brought the statewide total number of cases to 836,055 and fatalities to 10,336.

Looking back on 2020, it’s inevitable that questions will continue to loom, the answers to which we may never agree on. How did we get here? What could have been done differently? Could this have been avoided? Where do we go from here?

At the onset of the pandemic, Ohio gained positive national attention for its initial response to COVID-19. Gov. Mike DeWine and former Ohio Health Director Amy Acton wasted no time issuing orders and mandates. Schools shut down, restaurant and bars closed, and who can forget the cluster that was Ohio’s primary election? The safeguards enacted by state leadership early on received praise for helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. 

However, prevention and mitigation plans for incarcerated Ohioans painted a very different picture.

Ohio has one of the largest combined jail and prison populations in the country, and its mass incarceration crisis became deadly in the wake of the pandemic. People held in Ohio’s jails and prisons have continuously remained at heightened risk of potentially fatal outcomes due to overcrowding, lack of social distancing, and subpar conditions.

Let’s look at Ohio’s prison system. 

The first case of COVID-19 in Ohio’s prison system was reported on March 29 after a staff member at Marion Correction Institution tested positive. This came as no surprise to advocates like the ACLU of Ohio, who, as early as March 10, had been urging state officials to use their powers to quickly and safely reduce incarcerated populations across the state. Weeks passed without action as cases continued to climb, and Ohio prisons became nationwide hotspots. In May, the ACLU of Ohio and Policy Matters Ohio unveiled an analysis showing the COVID-19 death rate in Ohio prisons was nearly 10 times higher than in Ohio’s general population.

So what steps, if any, were taken to address the spread of COVID-19 in Ohio’s prisons? In a series of announcements at the beginning of April, DeWine provided release recommendations for select people in Ohio prisons. The number of people that were actually released under DeWine’s authority versus decarceration via other methods is unclear.

Reports from Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) have revealed a steady reduction in Ohio’s prison system population. From March to November, the population decreased by more than 4,000 people (March 3 – 48,795; Nov. 3 – 44,471). DeWine went on record in September stating that Ohio’s prisons had the fewest number of incarcerated individuals since 2005. This could be interpreted as a silver lining, but we know that is not true.

Ohio ranks among states with the highest overall number of COVID-19 cases in prison populations. A small reduction in an already overcrowded system is nowhere near adequate when lives are on the line. Ohio prisons operated over 130% capacity for years, and the system designed to house 38,000 is still operating well over capacity today. 

ODRC provides daily reports on COVID-19 in Ohio’s state prison system, but there is no uniform, public reporting system for Ohio’s jails. The unfortunate lack of transparency means that we don’t have a full picture of COVID-19’s impact on Ohio’s jail population. 

Anecdotally, initial responses to the pandemic looked a bit different locally when compared to statewide efforts. Many at the county and municipal levels throughout Ohio fortunately recognized the severity of COVID-19 and took immediate action to reduce county jail populations in order to keep those who are incarcerated, jail personnel, and their greater communities safe. To note, the ACLU of Ohio and others continuously advocate that jail decarceration and bail reform should be the new normal, even past the pandemic. 

Reports of jail census numbers started to rise when state mandates and restrictions lifted as months passed, a concerning trend that continued through the remainder of the year. While the exact number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities among Ohio’s jail population is unknown, we do know that incarcerated individuals in Ohio remain at heightened risk of contracting the deadly virus. 

Reviewing the impact of COVID-19 over the past year, Ohio’s largest outbreaks have all occurred in prisons and jails. We know that the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities does not stop at the gate. The ripple effect of COVID-19 in Ohio’s prisons, jails, and detention facilities contributes to community spread. As conversations continue to unfold around the state’s vaccine rollout plans, it is clear that incarcerated Ohioans have not been given appropriate consideration and prioritization, and when pushed on this issue, Governor DeWine offers vague responses.

A disproportionate number of people in Ohio’s prisons and jails are Black and Latinx and are members of communities who have already suffered the most in this pandemic. These individuals should be given the same level of priority as other people living in congregate living facilities, yet incarcerated Ohioans were not included in Phase 1A of Ohio’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program. The lack of planning for this vulnerable population demonstrates that our leaders are still missing the mark. 

It is far past time for Ohio to learn from its mistakes. There are tangible ways for Ohio to course correct in order to change our approach to managing COVID-19. To start, state and local stakeholders must take direct and meaningful action to depopulate — and continue to depopulate — Ohio’s prisons, jails, and detention facilities. Ohioans who are incarcerated must also be immediately prioritized in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

Bottom line — Ohio’s state and local leaders need to understand that protecting the safety of all Ohioans includes those who are incarcerated and act accordingly. Until then, Ohio will undoubtedly continue to grapple with the serious and deadly consequences of COVID-19.

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Sabrina Harris
Sabrina joined the ACLU of Ohio as a Policy Strategist in March of 2020. Being from the suburbs of Cleveland, she is beyond thrilled to be actively involved in cultivating change in her home state. In this capacity, Sabrina will work to advance ACLU’s mission through research and policy analysis, partnerships, and advocacy efforts. Prior to the ACLU of Ohio, Sabrina worked at the Council on Accreditation (COA) in New York City in a variety of roles since 2012, all of which focused on partnering with human and social service providers to implement best practices. She also served as a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH). Sabrina received a B.A. in Psychology from Wittenberg University and a M.S. in Family Studies with a specialization in Child Advocacy and Family Policy from the University of New Hampshire.