Judge: Ohio prison staff doing enough to prevent outbreak among inmates
US District Judge Solomon Oliver rebutted an opinion from a doctor who said prison conditions could lead to an outbreak
By Eric Heisig
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND — A federal judge said that staff at a private prison in Youngstown were doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among inmates, rebutting an opinion from a doctor who said conditions at the prison could lead to a significant outbreak.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver wrote Wednesday that he would not order staff at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center to implement recommendations made by Dr. Venktesh Ramnath. While 12 staff members there have tested positive for the virus, no inmates have, the judge noted.
The judge’s opinion was a blow to many defense attorneys in the Cleveland area who have argued for their clients’ releases over what they said was a dangerous situation for those in the prison in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. Some have argued that no inmates have tested positive because the prison has not conducted enough tests, as many who carry the virus may show no symptoms.
Ramnath, medical director of critical care telemedicine outreach with the University of California San Diego health network, recommended reducing the inmate population, requiring social distancing, adding screening measures and providing personal protective equipment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had said the prison was already doing much of what the doctor recommended.
“Defendant has presented no evidence indicating that NEOCC’s current procedures are ineffective,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, the record suggests that NEOCC’s procedures may be effective in preventing the spread of the virus, considering no prisoners have tested positive, despite the fact that four staff persons have contracted the virus.”
The prison is owned and operated by CoreCivic of Nashville. In addition to people in U.S. Marshals Service custody, the state of Ohio houses inmates in another wing of the prison.
While the prison has not seen a coronavirus outbreak, thousands of inmates in other jails and prisons in the state have tested positive. Seventy-one state inmates have died from the virus as of Thursday, along with nine at a federal prison in Columbiana County.
Ramnath gave his opinion at the behest of the lawyer for Aaron Gage, a 26-year-old from Lorain awaiting trial on a felon in possession of a firearm charge. Gage has been in custody since Nov. 6.
Carlos Warner, his federal public defender, asked Oliver in April to release his client because he is obese and argued that he was at increased risk of illness associated with the virus.
The judge, however, said he feels that Gage, suspected of having been involved with two shootings before his arrest, is a flight risk and danger to the community and that his attorney did not refute those concerns.
Oliver also wrote that he took seriously the concerns that the virus spreads within a prison. However, he said that Gage’s arguments for release because of his weight were not enough for his release.
“Simply put, Defendant has not identified any specific or well-documented health condition or heightened risk factor that he faces, nor has he provided any information regarding confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 at NEOCC,” he said.
The motion was one of many that attorneys with cases in northern Ohio’s federal court filed in the past couple of months. U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman’s office has opposed the vast majority of them, and the federal judges have mostly agreed.
Federal Public Defender Stephen Newman said Thursday he was disappointed in the ruling but respected the judge’s decision.
CoreCivic has said they are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep inmates and staff safe. At the prison, detainees in the U.S. Marshals Service custody who spoke to cleveland.com during the pandemic said that they felt other inmates and staff did not take the virus seriously.
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