Marion prison becomes nation's leading coronavirus hotspot as advocates demand action

As coronavirus spreads rapidly through the Marion Correctional Institution, making the central Ohio prison apparently the nation's top hotspot for COVID-19, advocates for both corrections officers and inmates say the state is not doing enough to protect either.

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The union representing 349 guards and other employees at the Marion prison is concerned that corrections officers and others at the prison who had been sent home after testing positive for coronavirus are being forced back to work as soon as three days after being deemed symptom-free. Those same employees are often working double shifts as well, said Sally Meckling, spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.

"County health departments and state health departments are all over the map on instructions about who goes back to work and when," Meckling said. "Some of our members are being told they can go back after three days of being symptom-free, others are saying five days and others are saying 14 days.

"The other issue we've got, particularly at Marion, is (employees) who are back after being tested positive are working back-to-back shifts. They are already sick, they are tired, and now they are working 16 hours a day."

Through Monday, 1,950 of about 2,500 prisoners at the Marion prison have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 154 staff members, about a third of the prison's work force. One guard, John Dawson of Mansfield, Ohio, has died, as has one inmate. Another 34 prisoners have been hospitalized.

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The Marion prison is now by far the nation's top hot spot for the coronavirus, a compilation by the New York Times shows. Because of the prison spike, Marion County's overall infection rate of 3,172 per 100,000 residents also is the highest in the country.

The Marion totals are inflated because tests were administered widely in the prison, while testing is much less widespread across the country.

Ohio's prison coronavirus outbreak is being closely monitored by federal authorities, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation."

The best way to stop the spread of the disease inside the prison is to release more non-violent offenders, said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group that advocates for criminal justice reform.

Gov. Mike DeWine needs to "work faster and do more. Identify more incarcerated people who are not a public safety threat who can go to home confinement or be furloughed or whatever the mechanism you can use, use it to get these people out of these death chambers," Harris said.

DeWine announced last week that he will seek the early release of 167 inmates, most of whom are serving time in minimum-security prisons throughout the state.

"We do not intend to have a wholesale – everybody in certain category comes out. We are trying to do this very thoughtfully, at the same time doing everything we can to protect the prisoners and the employees who work there," DeWine said. "But prisons present, as Dr. (Amy) Acton has said, a very difficult situation."

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Inmates are not receiving proper medical care, says Austin Cooper, who has served over half of his six-year sentence for aggravated burglary and assault convictions and is one of the Marion prisoners who tested positive over the weekend for COVID-19.

He said he has been suffering from symptoms for about two weeks, including migraines and cold chills, but was never isolated from the other inmates at the prison camp where he lives.

"As recently as yesterday, we have inmates in here that can't even walk and breathe" because of the virus, he said. "Medical just keeps sending them back out here to the camp, talking about they can't do nothing for them."

Cooper said one inmate in the camp complained of symptoms for five days before his condition worsened and he was rushed out of the prison by ambulance.

"He almost died out here," he said. "We're just stuck in here. ... Honestly, they almost have to be dead before medical will even do anything for them."

JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the prisons agency, said numerous steps have been taken to slow the spread of coronavirus inside Ohio prisons, including mass testing at Marion, the Pickaway Correctional Institution in Circleville and the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus.

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In Marion, "Individuals who test positive are placed in an area of the facility which is separate from the general population. Also, our comprehensive testing approach of staff and inmates has assisted us in identifying asymptomatic individuals who have tested positive who can now be isolated in order to prevent further spread," Smith said.

The National Guard is building structures at some prisons to house and spread out prisoners and lessen the chances of COVID-19 spreading, DeWine said.