LIMA — Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima was among the last of Ohio’s prisons to experience cases of COVID-19 among staff and/or inmates. The novel coronavirus, however, has found its way into the prison, and the number of cases is rising quickly.
Those totals will continue to increase, predicts a union official representing corrections officers at the facility, because health and safety protocols are being ignored.
According to the statewide data base that tracks COVID-19 numbers in Ohio’s prisons, on Aug. 10 Allen Oakwood had seven staff members who reported positive tests for the coronavirus. The number of inmates who had tested positive for the virus stood at 17. Thirty-six inmates were in isolation.
Two days later the numbers were inching upward as eight staff members had tested positive and 31 inmates returned positive tests. By Thursday of this week there were 54 inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 78 inmates in isolation and 55 in quarantine. The number of staff members with positive tests jumped to 14.
Members of SEIU District 1199 representing prison workers said in a press release issued Friday that despite good faith efforts to request improvements, union employees are still not being provided with additional personal protective equipment. Workers also say Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections administrators and Gov. Mike DeWine have failed to listen to their concerns.
“Just since March this year, nearly 100 individuals have lost their lives within ODRC facilities due to the pandemic. These individuals are all confirmed cases or were listed as probable for COVID-19,” said Joshua Norris, executive vice president for SEIU District 1199.
Norris said that more than 1,000 staff members have contracted COVID-19 at ODRC institutions.
Local union leader frustrated
Shawn Gruber represents more than 400 employees at the Lima prison as president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association Chapter 0230. As president of the OCSEA Corrections Assembly he represents more than 8,800 prison workers statewide.
Speaking by telephone recently from his lake cottage where he was undergoing quarantine after being exposed to the virus, Gruber said that despite “tons of grievances” filed by the union surrounding health and safety issues at the prison the number of COVID-19 cases are “multiplying like rabbits” behind the prison walls.
Gerber believes inmates are being allowed to move about the prison too freely and that too many civilians are entering the facility.
“Inmates who have tested positive are supposed to be quarantined for 14 days. But they’re being allowed to go to rec or to medical or to the weight room,” the union rep said. Gerber believes the health of prison staff is being put at risk unnecessarily, and that prison officials simply don’t care.
“They don’t feel like they have to give us an explanation on anything when they’re asked. All we’re told is that decisions are being made by the people in Columbus. Well I’m calling ‘foul.’ They don’t care about us and I’m not going to stand back and watch (stuff) happen. It’s not safe for the staff right now and it’s not safe for the inmates,” the union rep said.
Jodi Factor, assistant to the warden at Allen Oakwood, in an email to The Lima News dated Aug. 6, AOCI had segregated COVID-19 positive offenders from the general population. Offenders who are confirmed COVID-19 positive are housed in an area separate from our general population for monitoring and care, she said.
Factor said prison officials “will be moving offenders to a designated quarantine area on the housing units. These individuals are required for quarantine for the following reasons — scheduled for release, returning from court or having scheduled medical appointments. Some moves of general population offenders were noted to create the needed quarantine space. COVID-19 positive offenders are not housed in general population. “
Eye on Ohio
A story written by Cid Standifer and Brie Zeltner for Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism, offers a little insight.
As of Aug. 14, there have been 77 inmate deaths known to be caused by coronavirus, and another 10 suspected — a rate of 160 deaths per 100,000. Ohio’s prisons have incubated two of the four largest COVID outbreaks in the nation, according to the article.
In Pennsylvania’s prison system, which houses about 44,000 inmates at 25 facilities, the death rate was comparatively low— 10 incarcerated people had died as of mid-August, for a death rate of 23 per 100,000 people, despite the virus showing up in each state just a few days apart. A Pennsylvania inmate is less than half as likely to die of COVID-19 as a free Pennsylvanian, the report concluded.
Why have Ohio’s prisons failed so thoroughly to control the spread of COVID-19 when Pennsylvania fared far better? The report attributes over-crowding and dormitory-style housing as part of the reason.
In Ohio, where the prisons were 32% above capacity in February, the virus spread rapidly. In Pennsylvania’s prisons, at 95 percent of capacity in February, there were outbreaks in several prisons, but far fewer deaths.
The close quarters of dorm-style housing is a problem in other Ohio prisons, too, inmates told the reporters.
Javalen Wolfe, an inmate incarcerated in dormitory-style housing at Belmont Correctional Institution in southeastern Ohio, said every time a flu or a cold enters the prison, there’s no stopping it.
“This is how it works because we live so close together. If one person gets sick, everybody gets sick,” he said. “We are literally two feet, maybe two and a half feet between the next person, and there’s no divider, no wall.”
DRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith told Eye on Ohio that the open bays make it difficult to control the virus. She said they have attempted to mitigate dorm crowding by spreading inmates out in other areas that aren’t normally used for housing, such as gymnasiums and classrooms.
But eliminating the virus entirely is not possible, said Chambers-Smith.
”If there’s COVID out in the community, there’s COVID in the prisons,” she said.