The most recent numbers provided by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction show the continued spread of COVID-19 in Ohio prisons. Twenty-nine inmates and two officers have now died from the virus, and more than 3,600 have tested positive across the state's 27 facilities.
The vast majority of confirmed cases, and all but two of the deaths, have occurred at Marion and Pickaway Correctional Institutions, where facility-wide testing earlier this month revealed the extent of the outbreak. At Pickaway, 21 inmates and one officer have died.
The Ohio Capital Journal reported Thursday that Belmont Correctional Institution, near the Ohio-West Virginia border, looks to be the next "hot spot" in the state prison system. An ODRC spokeswoman said that there was a unit within Belmont in which all residents had been exposed to COVID-19 and were "likely positive.” She did not say how many inmates lived in the unit, but claimed that they were being "quarantined."
(Per the ODRC's definition, quarantining means "separating and restricting the movement" of those who have been exposed to the virus. All but four of the state's prisons, and indeed all the inmates at Belmont, are supposedly in quarantine.)
Like other Ohio prisons, Belmont is far over capacity, which exacerbates the challenges of social distancing in congregant settings. When CityBeat's sister paper The Cleveland Scene spoke with HIV-positive inmate Derek Lichtenwalter, whose request for early release was denied in March, he said that he could reach out and touch five or six people at any time when in his bunk.
"There's no adherence at all to social distancing," he told Scene. "It's impossible. It's not even impractical. It's just impossible."
The description was echoed by an inmate in the Capital Journal story, who said that inmates "can lay on our racks and hold each other’s hands. That's how close we are."
Gov. Mike DeWine said in a press conference this month that any prison which becomes a "hot spot" would undergo mass testing. Belmont has not yet tested inmates in a comprehensive way. They are currently testing only those with symptoms, and it's unclear at what infection level the facility becomes a "hot spot," according to the state. Right now, 37 inmates have tested positive and an additional seven are in isolation.
If infections at Belmont explode, resulting in deaths and costly intensive care for dozens if not hundreds of inmates, DeWine will be to blame. His refusal to release or relocate a significant number of prisoners during the pandemic has made the ODRC a national disgrace and is the strongest counterargument to the consensus about DeWine's COVID-19 response.
The governor has been lauded locally and nationally, even though he is now coming under fire for flip-flopping on state directives related to mask usage (as he yields to pressure from the worst and dumbest humans alive: members of the Ohio Business Community). But he has shown an utter lack of leadership and humanity on the prison issue.
Incarcerated Ohioans are still Ohioans. They're humans, too.