For all that Ohio has done right in slowing the spread of the coronavirus and cases of COVID-19, the wildfire of contagion in at least two state prisons must be viewed as a failure.
State officials bear direct responsibility for the well-being of people confined in state institutions, and prisons also offer more ability than in any other setting to control people’s behavior. Yet at the Marion Correctional Institution, more than 80%, or 2,011 of the 2,500 inmates there, plus 154 employees have tested positive for the virus as of April 21, making it the hottest “hot spot” for coronavirus in the nation.
And on that same date another Ohio prison, The Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient, was second in the nation, with 1,536 inmates and 73 guards infected.
Ohio hasn’t necessarily done a worse job than other states in protecting prison inmates and employees; those high numbers were posted after the state, responding to the outbreak, tested every inmate in both facilities – something few other states had done at the time.
Regardless, the outbreaks, with infection rates far higher than among the general public, show that state officials have not properly protected state employees or inmates, who are powerless to protect themselves. As of last week, at least 29 Ohio prison inmates and two employees had died of COVID-19.
When state officials analyze and evaluate Ohio’s coronavirus experience, they should pay special attention to what happened (or didn’t happen) in the prison system, to provide for accountability and to allow better preparation in the future.
Most important, they should recognize this tragedy as more proof of the need to reform criminal sentencing so that Ohio’s prisons aren’t so unnecessarily full in the first place.
To be fair, prisons aren’t designed for social distancing. Low-to-medium-security facilities such as Marion and Pickaway in particular, tend to feature dormitory-like setups that put inmates in close proximity.
Still, there remains room for improvement in managing the current crisis. Guards have complained of not being issued proper facemasks to keep from spreading the virus.
Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered some nonviolent, low-risk inmates near the end of their sentences to be released early, but the numbers so far have been too low to make a meaningful difference in a prison system that was built for 30,000 prisoners but is holding 49,000.
As with so many aspects of managing this public-health crisis, DeWine has a fine line to tread in considering early releases. Given the realities of prison, a substantial reduction in numbers may be the only way to ensure that inmates can stay 6 feet from each other. Other means of separation being tried, such as closing recreation rooms and canceling outdoor time, are likely to increase tension in an already-volatile environment.
But many Ohioans would object to wholesale get-out-of-jail-free orders, and DeWine’s background as a county prosecutor and state attorney general might make such a decision a tough sell for himself, not to mention others in the justice system.
Beyond these immediate life-and-death concerns, this dark chapter in Ohio’s prisons should provide a solid boost those advocates who have been pushing for more than a year for laws that could make Ohio’s prisons far less crowded and, most important, help thousands of Ohioans build better lives.
House Bill 1, passed by the House in June, would expand the use of interventions instead of conviction for nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction or mental illness. It was introduced in the Senate immediately but has languished in the Senate Justice Committee since September.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 3, which would reduce most low-level drug offenses to misdemeanors, has been parked in the same committee since its introduction in February 2019.
States have a moral obligation to guard the physical safety of prison inmates. Ohio can start doing that – and make thousands of lives better – by not putting so many people in prison who don’t belong there.