Marion Correctional/ Ohio Department of Corrections
Two Ohio counties were among the top five coronavirus hot spots in America due to state prisons located within them.
The county with the most cases of COVID-19 per capita as of April 22 was Marion County, Ohio, thanks to the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI). And another of the state's counties, Pickaway — home to the Pickaway Correctional Institution — is No. 4 in the nation and gaining ground quickly.
Both counties were squarely at the top of data showing U.S. coronavirus hot spots compiled by The New York Times.
As of April 23, Marion County had dropped to second in the Times' data behind another prison in Lincoln County, Arkansas, where the virus is also spreading rapidly.
The sometimes-deadly coronavirus has exploded at MCI in the past week, with 2,011 confirmed cases among inmates as of April 21 and another 154 cases confirmed among staff members. Infected inmates represent more than 80 percent of the facility's incarcerated population.
Fourth on the Times' list as of April 23: Ohio's Pickaway County, fueled almost entirely by cases within the Pickaway Correctional Institution. As of April 21, 1,536 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 there — more than three out of four of the facility's inmate population.
Eight of the state prison system's 10 COVID-19-related deaths have occurred at Pickaway. No deaths due to COVID-19 have been reported at Marion yet.
Just last week, as the state's total caseload hit more than 8,000 on April 16, both counties had far fewer cases. Marion had just 276, while Pickaway had just 196, according to Ohio Department of Health data — far fewer than counties with major urban areas. That has changed quickly, however.
The prisons' captive populations in tight quarters means that the highly contagious disease is able to spread quickly — something inmate advocates have warned about for weeks. And the prisons' locations in sparsely populated rural counties means that concentrated cases of the virus within the prisons drive up those counties' per-capita case numbers.
Marion County has just 65,000 residents. Pickaway has roughly 55,000.
"We ask Gov. Mike DeWine to develop immediate plans to prevent and manage the spread or potential spread of COVID-19 among Ohio's prisons, youth facilities, and jails," The ACLU of Ohio tweeted March 11. "This is an urgent matter. The cost of inadequate planning may be measured in lives."
Both prisons have the highest numbers of cases associated with institutions and workplaces in the U.S. — more than high-profile outbreaks at the Smithfield pork processing facility in South Dakota and aboard the Navy's USS Theodore Roosevelt, which infected more than 700 sailors.
Overall, more than 3,760 inmates in Ohio prisons had contracted the disease as of April 21 — more than 25 percent of the state's total of 14,117 confirmed cases.
DeWine has slowly rolled out plans to release some nonviolent offenders from Ohio prisons, though so far he has ordered the release of fewer than 300.
"The reason you're seeing the numbers spike is because we're doing mass testing," DeWine said of COVID-19 in the state's prisons during a public briefing April 20. "The Ohio National Guard is in the process of building out to create more space. We're looking at more prisoners who can be released, all while balancing public safety. We do not intend to do a wholesale release where every one in a certain category gets out of prison. We need to do this thoughtfully, and we want to protect our corrections employees and inmates."
Others, however, have urged the state to do more — quickly — to slow the spread of the disease in its correctional facilities.
An inmate in the state's Belmont Correctional Institution filed a complaint against the state in the Ohio Supreme Court on March 19, seeking release from the prison, claiming that there was no way to maintain social distancing there. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the state's request to dismiss that complaint last week, but at least one justice begged the state to take stronger measures to protect inmates.
"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 vehicular pursuit that lasted an hour.
He is HIV positive and has said his incarceration during the pandemic is "a death sentence."
"I hope that petitioner and others in Ohio do not see today’s decision as the judiciary’s throwing up its hands and claiming that there is nothing that it can do," Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly wrote in an opinion concurring with the court's decision to dismiss the case. "The whole of Ohio’s government needs to take serious, unprecedented steps to prevent the catastrophe of unmitigated spread of COVID-19 to the tens of thousands of prisoners in Ohio as well as to the tens of thousands of people who are prison employees along with those living in the households of prison employees. Ohio’s executive branch, including the governor, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the Adult Parole Authority, and the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee collectively have broad authority to take an assortment of steps to prevent such a catastrophe."