Three Deaths at Pickaway and Counting: Situation at Ohio Prisons Getting More Severe Every Day

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The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has now reported three deaths at the Pickaway Correctional Facility in central Ohio.

Pickaway is currently the only ODRC prison to have reported deaths associated with COVID-19. But as ODRC has ramped up its testing capacity, it's now clear that both Pickaway and Marion Correctional Institution, the site of the first reported case, are swarming with the virus.



Meanwhile, Gov. Mike DeWine has made only marginal efforts to reduce the population within Ohio's detention centers, which are already far over capacity.

The conditions are bad and getting more severe by the day, in spite of DeWine's assurances to the contrary (see below). Sixteen of the state's 27 prisons are on full lockdown, with more than 21,000 inmates in quarantine. In low-security facilities without individual cells, like Pickaway and Marion, "quarantine" often means that large numbers of prisoners are grouped together in a single room.



Pickaway has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday night, with 132, and 53 tests pending. Alongside Pickaway, Marion is approaching the worst infection rates in the county. Ninety-two inmates have tested positive there with 147 tests pending. Given the rate of positive tests across ODRC—272 positive, 140 negative—it's reasonable to assume that many of the pending results will be positive as well.

At Marion, the situation is even more dire because the rate of infection among the staff is so extreme. At least 87 staffers have reported testing positive, almost as many positive tests as the inmate population. This is by far the most in Ohio. 

Wednesday, Gov. DeWine was pleased to announced that Ohio's prison system, which house nearly 50,000 individuals, had reduced its population by 311 in the previous week.

Those numbers are absolutely minuscule, fewer than 12 inmates per facility. DeWine had recommended only extremely narrow categories of prisoners for early release, including pregnant women and both elderly inmates and nonviolent inmates who were approaching the very end of their sentences. This accounted for about 160 recommendations for early release across the system.

The remaining population reduction is merely the result of fewer inmates coming into the prisons with roughly the same number going out (the criminal justice system's constant churn and crunch.)

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DeWine has repeatedly referenced his personal difficulty, even angst, in making these decisions. He said that he and his team have been weighing the safety of prison staff, the safety of prisoners themselves and the safety of the communities to which prisoners would return.

But by failing to act more aggressively and heeding the call of advocates—some of whom say that the state's prison population would need to be cut in half to effectively halt the spread of the coronavirus—DeWine is sentencing many more Ohio prisoners to death.

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