Inmates, staff worry about care as Marion prison becomes one of largest COVID outbreaks in US

At Marion Correctional Institution, above, 95 percent of inmates have tested positive for coronavirus as of May l. The minimum-to medium-security prison has become the largest-known source of coronavirus infections in the United States, according to the New York Times. (Photo provided by Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction)

The largest-known coronavirus hotspot in the country isn’t in New York or California: it’s the Marion Correctional Institution, an Ohio state prison about 50 miles north of Columbus.

According to state data that is updated daily, for Marion Correctional, as of May 1, staff members who reported positive results are 175; COVID-19 related staff deaths are 1; staff who have recovered are 98; units in quarantine include the full institution; inmates in quarantine are 430; inmates in isolation are 2016; inmates currently positive for COVID-19 are 2016; probable COVID-19 related deaths are 0; confirmed COVID-19 related deaths are 8; inmates who have pending results are 190; and inmates who have recovered are 69.

In the Ohio prison system, as of May 1, 6375 inmates have been tested; 937 tests are pending; 4072 tested positive; and 1906 tested negative.

Thus, more than 95 percent of the population at the minimum- and medium-security facility at Marion have tested positive for COVID-19. Combined, almost 16 percent of Ohio’s total coronavirus cases come from the Marion prison.

Gov. Mike DeWine ordered that every inmate at Marion and two other prisons be tested. Many of those who tested positive showed no symptoms.

Yet, the situation at Marion is worse than any correctional institution in the country.

Interviews conducted by cleveland.com with inmates and activists reveal a number of reasons they say are to blame, including lags in getting test results, inadequate cleaning, no social-distancing measures, and intense strains on their mental health.

Prisons, by their very nature, are some of the most vulnerable places to infectious outbreaks, as they contain a large group of people forced to remain in close quarters, with limited access to medical care. At Marion, some inmates are assigned to cells, while others are assigned to a dorm – a large room filled with bunk beds for dozens of people.

“There is no social distancing,” said Jonathan White, a 44-year-old Marion inmate from Cincinnati serving 15 years to life for murder, told cleveland.com. “You can’t get away from it.”

Inmate Emrie Smith also spoke to cleveland.com, saying he has been in the gym, where there is no social distancing, and after 8 p.m. there is only one toilet available for about 200 men.

White said prison officials didn’t start moving to isolate sick inmates until the disease spread throughout the population.

However, JoEllen Smith, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Corrections in Columbus, told the Herald preparations to keep the virus out of the prison began in early January. Also, ODOC officials have been conferencing with correctional officials in other states for best practices information during the entire outbreak. Smith provided a comprehensive list of conditions enforced at Marian and other state prisons to reduce the cases of the disease.

“There is so much anxiety about what is going on here with people’s health,” White added. “We view ourselves as an expendable population. So, when you see these types of numbers that are happening to us in prison, it’s almost expected – like, they (the authorities) don’t care.”

When asked why Marion in particular has so many COVID-19 cases — more than the rest of Ohio’s prison system combined — state prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith gave this answer:

“The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has taken an aggressive and unique approach to testing, which includes mass testing of all staff and inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution, the Pickaway Correctional Institution, and the Franklin Medical Center (which is Ohio’s medical facility for inmates),” Smith stated in an email. “Because we are testing everyone – including those who are not showing symptoms – we are getting positive test results on individuals who otherwise would have never been tested because they were asymptomatic.”

Smith stated that after testing, inmates who show symptoms are immediately placed into isolation.

As for cleaning supplies, Smith stated that chemical boxes are delivered daily to each prison area, and the amount of disinfectant has been increased during the coronavirus crisis.

As for mental-health services, Smith stated that the state’s prisons agency offers “a full continuum of mental-health care within our facilities” using social distancing guidelines and proper personal protective equipment.

State prison officials are also developing plans to increase the use of tele-services for mental-health care if necessary, she stated.

Dozens of protestors stood outside Marion Correctional Facility Saturday holding signs to show support for their loved ones inside.

“I’m here fighting for my son’s life,” said Sabrina White, whose son, Richard Williams, has been incarcerated at Marion for over a year now. He has four more years left on his sentence.”

Update from the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office

A total of 20 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, six are currently testing positive and 14 have recovered. Forty-eight inmates (including the six current positives) are on some level of COVID restriction. Additionally, nine employees have tested positive and six of those staffers have returned to work.