Release incarcerated Ohioans to flatten the coronavirus curve

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine acted quickly and decisively in March to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections in this Midwestern state, closing schools, restaurants, and other gathering places. He also took action by postponing the March primary to slow the spread of the virus, protect vulnerable populations, and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Although not without controversy, these steps appear to have kept hospitals from being overwhelmed in the early months of the pandemic. And while the death toll is still rising, its climb has not been as steep as some models had predicted.

Gov. DeWine has not given the same attention to protecting incarcerated Ohioans and the workers who guard and serve them. At the end of May, the Marshall Project reported that Ohio’s state prison system has reported more deaths of incarcerated people than any other state system in the United States and more than the federal prison system. Ohio’s system has the third-highest per capita death rate among incarcerated people, behind Michigan and New Jersey.

No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want to make sure our loved ones are safe and healthy.

That’s why it’s important to call out the governor’s lack of action to save lives in Ohio prisons, which has a potentially disproportionate impact on black Ohioans. Of the nearly 48,000 people in Ohio prisons, approximately 47% of the men and 74% of the women are black; in contrast, 12% of the state’s total population is black. Black people are disproportionately represented among corrections officers as well, making up 18% of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) staff in that role.

As Ohioans try to protect their family, friends, and neighbors from the spread of the coronavirus, it’s important to remember that many communities include prisons as well.

Advocates have been calling for state officials to reduce prison populations, by at least 10,000, to bring the number of incarcerated people in the state’s system closer to its design capacity of 38,500. At least partly in response to advocacy, the state has taken steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated in state prisons by about 1,300 to just over 47,500, down from nearly 49,000 in March. He can’t stop there. The governor must release more people to allow for more isolation and physical distancing, and to ensure proper staffing as more corrections officers fall ill. Chris Mabe, president of the main union representing prison workers, criticized the leaders of the Ohio Department of Corrections for not providing staff with the proper protective equipment, hazard pay, or paid leave. He also called for the National Guard to supplement staff.

Systemwide as of May 31, 4,755 people incarcerated in Ohio’s state prisons have tested positive, about 10% of the current prison population. Through April and into May, the vast majority of those total positives were from just two prisons, Marion Correctional Institution and Pickaway Correctional Institution, although other prison facilities now have become COVID-19 hotspots. Systemwide, 668 staff have tested positive, with nearly 80% of staff positives at just five prisons. The high numbers at Marion and Pickaway are largely due to the state’s decision to test everyone at those two facilities, which house populations of older and medically vulnerable people. They also have seen the most deaths: 37 people have died from COVID-19 at Pickaway and 14 at Marion, including a staff person at each. The system has reported 24 deaths of incarcerated people at other facilities, where numbers have begun to rise. A total of four staff have now died from the virus. Notably, both Marion and Pickaway house about 150% of the people they were designed to, many in open dorms where distancing is impossible.

COVID-19 entered Ohio’s prisons from outside but is now spreading back out into the community.

Prisons and jails are known disease incubators, and it is clear by now that COVID-19 is no exception. This pandemic shows that keeping people who live and work in our state’s prisons safer will protect our communities from the spread of the virus outside prison walls.

A May 29 article in the Marion Star reported 264 probable and confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside Marion County’s two state prisons, making it the Ohio county with the highest number of cases per capita. Pickaway County has seen similarly high numbers outside its state prison, showing the disproportionate impact that the presence of poorly managed, overcrowded prisons can have on these smaller, rural counties compared with Ohio’s more densely populated urban counties.

Advocates, including Policy Matters Ohio, the ACLU of Ohio, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and the Ohio Transformation Fund are calling for the release from incarceration, with or without parole supervision, of at least 10,000 people. ODRC should consider individuals for permanent release or for temporary incarceration outside of existing prison facilities, akin to “transitional control,” which already exists in Ohio law.

The focus should be on those who are at low risk of committing another crime or at high risk for contracting COVID-19, either because they are older than 60 or have underlying health conditions.

At last count, Gov. DeWine had recommended or authorized the release of some 1,250 people, a step in the right direction but nowhere near what’s needed.

Examples of the individuals who should be considered for release include:

  • The more than 14,000 people classified by ODRC into Security Level 1. They are already considered the least likely to violate prison rules and are allowed the most freedom within the system.
  • The approximately 20% of people going into prison each year who are incarcerated for violation of post-release conditions that are not in themselves new crimes.
  • The people imprisoned for low-quantity drug possession, which does not include trafficking. In 2019, 2,844 entered the system with this as their most serious offense. Over the past year, legislators introduced two bipartisan bills focused on keeping people charged with low-level possession out of prison, although both have stalled.
  • People who have taken programs to improve their mental health, to overcome substance abuse, to increase their positive social behaviors and beliefs, and to prepare for jobs. Research on incarceration in Ohio has shown that the safest way to significantly lower the prison population would be to give more earned credit time to these people. ODRC has the records of all those who have done the most to show they are ready for reentry. These individuals are at low risk to commit new crimes.
  • People who have completed at least 80% of their sentence and those who have less than a year left on their sentences. The safety of the larger community gets little benefit from keeping these people incarcerated for such a short time, but it presents a huge public and individual health risk.

All people, whether they are in their homes or being held in the justice system, have the right to be cared for and safe. This crisis demands a response that treats everyone in a just and humane way. Now is the time for our diverse communities to come together to make sure all are protected, not only during this crisis but with longer-term reforms that move our society away from its current plague of over-incarceration.

Piet van Lier is a research consultant focused on justice reform and education at Policy Matters Ohio.