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Ohio Corrections Director Outlines How Prisons Are Coping In This Pandemic

The Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.
The Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.

Gov. Mike DeWine used his Thursday briefing on coronavirus in Ohio to provide some insight into what the state's prisons are doing to battle the pandemic within their walls.

Mass testing was conducted at Ohio's prisons in April. At that time almost 3,800 inmates tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state. As WOSU reported, that's significantly more than any other state in the country, though largely due to the fact that no other state has tested as many inmates as Ohio.

Prisons present a unique challenge in preventing spread because of the closed environment. What's more, the virus may be harder to contain given that Ohio's prisons are overcrowded.

Also in April, DeWine ordered the release of about 140 inmates, most of whom were already scheduled for release, and who were older, pregnant or postpartum, or suffering from a pre-existing condition.

Ohio currently has 48,765 people in its prisons.

"We ended up with fewer than we thought but that's what we came up with based on the screening process that we went through," DeWine said at the time.

At this Thursday's briefing, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Annette Chambers-Smith outlined the steps the state's prisons are taking to protect inmates.  

Efforts include early work to secure personal protective equipment, or PPE. "We realized quickly that we wouldn't be able to buy it in quick fashion, so we started making it," she said.

A ban on hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol, was also lifted.  

Other policy changes included screening of staff and inmates; stopping the transfer of people from prison to prison; delaying certain medical procedures; and "cohorting" people in the prisons as well as staff "like a little family," Chambers-Smith shared.

The National Guard has also stepped in to help replace people who aren't able to work during the pandemic. The CDC visited one of Ohio's prisons to offer suggestions around social distancing and prison HVAC systems.

Chambers-Smith said before mass testing took place, the plan was to move sick people out. "But the science told us something different," she said. "When we got the results back from Marion, we knew everyone who lived at that prison had exposure and separation wasn't going to work."

They adjusted plans.

Today, everyone in prison gets tested daily for fevers or symptoms. A team of inmates cleans surfaces "all day." Prisoners went from being served breakfast, lunch and dinner to instead receiving brunch and dinner to reduce the chance of inmate interaction and provide the opportunity for more sanitizing.

Inmates who sleep in a shared cell or in an "open bay" environment do so head-to-foot to keep their mouths further apart.

Employees, meanwhile, are getting 40 hours of "COVID leave" and have the option of leaving work and heading to a hotel room for a shower before returning home. Chambers-Smith and her team devised an allotment chart for PPE.

"A correction officer watching a unit, at that point, wouldn't need gloves and a surgical mask," she explained. "We're trying to buy it; we're trying to make it; and we're trying to conserve it and use it responsibility."

Later, DeWine responded to a question from a reporter who had heard that at least one prison was experiencing a shortage of soap, and never had enough PPE.

"There has always been a PPE issue statewide," he said. "But if you listen to what the director said, we're following the guidelines of PPE and what everybody should have in every appropriate position."

He also said there is confusion around the use of N95 masks, the most secure kind of medical masks. "They are only appropriate in certain cases," he said. "They have the adequate equipment today. Could they have been short early on? I'd have to check with the director but with the last deliveries that have been made we feel we have enough – we have a 90-day backup – for what we need in the prisons."

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