COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment seeks the release of more than 15,000 inmates from Ohio’s coronavirus-afflicted state prison system.
The action was filed Friday by four inmates in U.S. District Court in Columbus against Gov. Mike DeWine and Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith.
Unless medically vulnerable and other prisoners are released to reduce overcrowding and permit more social distancing, inmates and staff will continue to contract COVID-19, resulting in deaths, the lawsuit claims.
“The state failed to take meaningful action prior to COVID-19’s silent creep into the prisons, but it is not too late to save lives and diminish the further spread,” the lawsuit states.
“Without intervention from this court, the state will continue to act without urgency, which will result in the needless deaths of prisoners, staff, and members of the community-at-large.”
The lawsuit filed by the law firm of Joseph Patituce in Strongsville seeks class-action status to represent all of Ohio’s 48,000 prison inmates on the claims of constitutional violations.
Nearly one in five of all coronavirus cases in Ohio stem from state prisons, with 4,498 inmates and 571 prison employees infected with COVID-19, according to state figures.
The Pickaway and Marion correctional institutions were the hardest hit, with about 80% of inmates at each prison infected. State officials say three-fourths of all inmates system wide have recovered from the virus.
A total of 60 inmates have died, including 14 at Marion and 35 at Pickaway, which houses the prison equivalent of a nursing home for chronically ill and older inmates. A corrections officer at Marion and a nurse at Pickaway also have died from COVID-19.
The lawsuit seeks a court order releasing prisoners with one of many chronic health conditions and all prisoners serving lower level fourth-and fifth degree felonies, including drug charges. The average stay for all inmates is 2.7 years.
Freedom for inmates older than 55 who have served at least two-thirds or 10 years of their sentences for first- and second-degree felonies also is sought.
The action also seeks the release of convicted murderers and rapists over the age of 55 if they are deemed not dangerous and have served their minimum terms or at least 25 years in prison.
“The consequences of COVID-19’s raid into the prison system could have been largely avoided had Gov. DeWine and ODRC acted with the same urgency and scope of restriction used for the state-at-large.
“Instead, thousands of prisoners have been left to languish in fear of the coming viral onslaught,” the lawsuit claims.
Comment was being sought from the governor’s office and the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
The state has released hundreds of non-violent inmates within 90 days of completing their sentences in a bid to lessen overcrowding and reduce the incidence of coronavirus.