Conditions within Ohio's COVID-19-infected prisons described as 'war zone'
A corrections officer said a lack of PPE and inadequate staffing is taking a toll as the COVID-19 crisis enters May
By Catherine Candisky
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio corrections officers Wednesday described increasingly frightening working conditions protecting inmates at the Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and inside two of the state's prison facilities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Rider, a corrections officer who works at the Franklin Medical Center and at the Wexner Medical Center, said a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and not enough corrections officers is taking a toll as the weeks-long coronavirus crisis enters May.
"We've got folks who are scared, we've got folks who do not want to be here," Rider said. "We have inmates who are the same way. They don't want to be here. They are scared. It is just utter chaos."
COVID-19 continues to spread through Ohio prisons, with the Marion Correctional Institution and Pickaway Correctional Institution combining for nearly 2,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus. That is an estimated 80 percent of the inmates in those two prisons.
Through Tuesday, there had been 29 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths among Ohio prisoners, including 21 at Pickaway and six at Marion.
Statewide, 419 prisons employees have tested positive for COVID-19, led by 172 at Marion and 91 at Pickaway. A nurse at Pickaway and corrections officer at Marion have died.
Those numbers would be smaller if prison guards and staff had proper masks and other PPE from the outset of the outbreak, Rider said.
"What we are most concerned about is the continued lack of personal protective equipment," Rider said.
"When this first started we weren't even given any masks. Even after the governor declared a state of emergency, we had to fight to bring in our own PPE from home. Since then we have been given surgical masks. But surgical masks only help prevent you from spreading the virus. They don't protect you from contracting it the way N95 does.
"They make us go through all these security measures, taking our temperature and asking us screening questions and then they hand us a mask that does not protect us as we walk into a war zone."
During his daily press briefing Wednesday, Gov. Mike DeWine said, "I feel prisons are being well run" and workers "have adequate equipment today." He said he would have to check, however, whether that was the case initially.
He said more than a million pieces of PPE have been provided to prison workers and inmates.
"Corrections officers and other staffing our state prisons are really on the front line every day and we appreciate very, very much their work," DeWine said. "We want to do everything that we can to keep them safe. Over the last few weeks, we have delivered to the prisons more than 1.1 million pieces of PPE," including N95 masks, other masks, gowns and gloves."
DeWine was asked, in light of the skyrocketing infection numbers at the Marion and Pickaway prison, whether there any reason to believe other prisons won't also explode with the coronavirus.
DeWine acknowledged: "Once the virus gets into a prison that has the congregant living it is very difficult ... to stop it from spreading."
Director Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the inmate-run Ohio Penal Industries has been producing hand sanitizer, face shields and surgical masks for use in the prisons.
Chambers-Smith detailed several steps taken to slow the spread of the virus in the state's 28 prisons, including not allowing visitors during the pandemic; halting inmate transfers between prisons; and postponing non-emergency medical procedures. She appeared remotedly with DeWine and was not made available to answer questions.
Due to early releases of non-violent inmates, the prison population is down 1,379 since March, she noted.
Earlier, Rider and Brian Miller, a corrections officer at the Marion prison, took part in a conference call with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and national American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees representatives who called on Congress to provide funding for state and local governments so that they can, in part, provide better pay and better protection for prison guards and other front-line workers.
Rider stressed that there are not enough guards to protect the prisoners inside the Franklin Medical Center, a state-run hospital for prisoners on the South Side, and for the inmates who require hospital care at the Wexner Medical Center. The Ohio National Guard is handling much of the duty now, along with parole officers.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has a dedicated wing at the Wexner Center for inmates. Typically, there are an additional 15-25 rooms throughout the facility needed for prisoners. Last week, there were more than 100 additional rooms needed for inmates.
Miller, a 20-year veteran who is fighting the coronavirus, said that more than 100 workers at the Marion prison have tested positive for the virus. Their absences have caused increasing burdens on those who are able to work.
"We are so short of staff that we are pulling four or more double (shifts) in a row. Those of us who are sick are forced to return to work after only three days of being symptom-free without additional testing" Miller said. "There is no way to know if we are exposing both staff and offenders.
"Being a corrections officer is a dangerous job on a good day. Right now it is hell."
©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)