Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine today announced that his administration is recommending the release of a small proportion of Ohio's 48,991 prison inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move comes after recent revelations that three guards at Ohio's Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. That prison is minimum security and inmates there gather in large groups and sleep as many as 200 to a dorm.
That news intensified criticism from inmate rights activists, who point out that prisons can easily become epicenters of contagion due to the movement of personnel in and out of prison facilities. Some groups are calling for a much wider release of inmates in the state.
DeWine says the state has measures in place to limit contagion, including daily screening of incoming inmates, employees and contractors. Nevertheless, DeWine says, the state is recommending the release of at least a handful of prisoners.
"We've started to look at different prisoners who it might make sense to let out early," DeWine said today. "We are sending today letters to judges around the state and suggesting that they may want to look at these prisoners."
DeWine said a total of 38 inmates who have not been convicted of violent offenses.
"These are not people who are sex offenders, these are not domestic abusers, they're not murders," DeWine said. "We screened out in the process a lot of different people."
Among the inmates who could see early release are 23 women who are either pregnant or who recently had a child that is with them in prison. Another 15 are inmates over 60 years old who have less than 60 days left on their sentences.
According to DeWine, judges in the communities in which the inmates were convicted would decide whether those inmates will be released.
"No one is saying that taking this many people out of prison is going to open up a lot of space in our prisons. We're trying to be very careful, very respectful of the local courts, the local victims and public safety," DeWine said today. "That's why we set a very strict criteria about who we would even consider. Will we look at additional? Yes, we could look at additional ones. But we want to take this very carefully."
Some want the state to go much further.
An inmate in the Belmont Correctional Facility filed a complaint in the Ohio Supreme Court against the state March 19 seeking release from the prison, claiming that there was no way to maintain social distancing in the prison.
"Bed areas are so crowded that I am within three feet of at least twelve people and those twelve are in the same position this means that there are 126 people in my ‘dorm’ that are within 3-4 feet of each other," inmate Derek Lichtenwalter's complaint reads. “The common areas are overcrowded and what this means is once it gets to the prison it will be spread quickly through the population.”
Lichtenwalter is serving 30 months for leading police on a chase.
The state asked the courts to dismiss Lichtenwalter's complaint.
Civil rights law firm Friedman & Gilbert today filed with the state an application for a categorical reprieve of Ohio prisoners in light of the COVID-19 crisis. That filing seeks release of non-violent offenders, those with a low risk of re-offending and those whose medical needs make them particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“The State has taken great strides to protect Ohio’s population, but people in Ohio prisons and the surrounding communities remain in grave danger,” Friedman & Gilbert partner Jacqueline Greene said in a statement. "Release of prisoners from Ohio’s prisons is necessary to flatten the curve of the effects of COVID-19 for the entire state.”
The attorneys who filed the application cite Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections data from last year showing that 15,000 inmates have conditions that could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. They also say that conditions in Ohio's prisons often don't allow for proper social distancing and other measures limiting the spread of the virus.
“What we’re hearing from our clients inside Ohio prisons is that, despite efforts from ODRC, the current conditions in prison do not allow for any realistic measures for health and safety,” said Kimberly Kendall Corral, an attorney at Patituce & Associates who helped file the application. “Our clients are afraid and have no means to protect themselves.”