With cases of COVID-19 spiking among the incarcerated, activists, attorneys and politicians are looking at ways to reduce overcrowding and slow the virus' deadly spread

In a bond motion filed on March 30 by Columbus attorney Rebecca Pokorski, her client, who was seeking pretrial release from Jackson Pike Correctional Facility amid the growing novel coronavirus threat, detailed crowded, unhygienic conditions that left the jail population at risk.

Both in the bond motion and in response to questions submitted by Alive via Pokorski, the client, who won release on April 3, spoke of sharing a 25-foot by 15-foot cell with as many as 16 other women, sleeping in bunks set less than 2 feet apart, which made social distancing an impossibility. Towels and sheets, the woman said, were washed just once a week -- the same frequency with which she said jail personnel disinfected the cell with Lysol -- and deputies didn’t wear masks or gloves on site. In the bond motion, the woman also said that two inmates in the tank across from her tested positive for COVID-19, and she believed they had been removed and taken to the hospital. In the days that followed, she said, deputies avoided entering that particular cell.

The Franklin County Sheriff's Office, which responded to an interview request be emailing related press releases, released a video in mid-March detailing enhanced cleaning procedures at its facilities, which also makes note of personal protective equipment (PPE) being distributed to both staff and inmates. As of April 15, four inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the FCSO, all of whom were relocated to isolated cells. Authorities said that none have required hospitalization.

But the former inmate, whose identity was withheld at the request of her attorney pending resolution of her still-active case, described via Pokorski a climate of fear among those housed within Jackson Pike, where the jailed lived in close quarters and under constant threat of infection. 

“[We] talked about the virus and knew it was just a matter of time before it got to the workhouse,” the woman said in an email. “[We] discussed this every day and knew that once it got into the jail that it would spread like fire.”

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Nationwide, COVID-19 infection has flourished within the crowded correctional system. After one inmate tested positive at Cummins Unit, a state prison in Grady, Arkansas, officials tested the other 46 men with whom he shared a barracks. Of those, 43 tested positive. 

In Ohio, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC), 1,426 prisoners have been tested for the coronavirus, with 489 positive tests and 781 pending. More than 32,000 inmates have now been placed under quarantine statewide. On Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that a prisoner at the Pickaway Correctional Institute had died of COVID-19, making the inmate the first in Ohio known to have succumbed to the virus. Three more Pickaway inmates have since died. 

The threat isn’t restricted to inmates, either. Franklin County Sheriff Dallas Baldwin said in a Wednesday call with elected county officials that 25 deputies had been infected, half of whom have since returned to work. Baldwin’s disclosure follows the early-April coronavirus-related death of John Dawson, an officer at Marion Correctional Facility, where 217 inmates have now tested positive. ODRC also reported that 184 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s a tremendous issue on a number of fronts. Obviously, these folks are prisoners, but they still have the right to be safe, and the right to be protected,” said Ian Friedman, president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. “The most troubling part for me is that, while concerns about the jail have been surfacing, a lot of folks in the community seem to discount the problem because the victims are prisoners. … The folks who are contracting this [virus] were not subjected to death sentences, and should not have one imposed because we didn’t have enough resources.”

DeWine, in response to the growing numbers, authorized the release of 105 nonviolent inmates from state prisons, all of whom are within 90 days of their scheduled release date. He has also asked judges to release hundreds of medically fragile inmates. But with nearly 49,000 people in the state’s prisons, which currently operate at around 128 percent of capacity, critics contend these actions don’t go far enough.

“Mass incarceration is entirely incompatible with COVID-19,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “Everything we hear on the outside about social distancing absolutely does not apply behind bars -- prisons, jails, what have you -- where conditions are already unhygienic, where the prison system [in Ohio] is already 10,000 people above capacity. … All of these things we already knew about prisons and jails in normal times, we knew with COVID-19 that it was going to be a whole different, unprecedented ball game.”

Currently, the ACLU is lobbying lawmakers to take more aggressive steps to safeguard the health of those behind bars. Daniels said that reducing the prison population by 10,000, bringing facilities down to 100 percent of their capacity, is the floor for what the group would like to see achieved. In an April 1 letter to the governor’s office, the ACLU highlighted seven categories of prisoner that should, on a case-by-case basis, be considered for early release: inmates with health vulnerabilities, people older than age 60, those with six months or less remaining on their sentence, people serving time for drug possession, nonviolent offenders, people with technical violations and those with low-level felonies.

Friedman echoed these calls for reduction, saying that more inmates should be made eligible for house arrest or early release, while also acknowledging that the move “may not be politically comfortable.” “DeWine has been doing an absolutely superb job with all of us here in Ohio,” he continued, “but I wish the expediency with which he has acted would continue with the jail population.”

At least one local activist group, #FreeThemAll614, would like officials to go even further, advocating to have prisons abolished and all inmates freed, further motivated in its mission by the unfolding coronavirus crisis. In recent weeks, the group has run “zap” campaigns, directing the community to call or email specific local officials and ask them to prioritize “the lives and safety of those incarcerated in Franklin County’s jails and juvenile detention centers.” Past targets have included Sheriff Baldwin and Department of Health Direction Dr. Amy Acton.

“People who are incarcerated can’t physically distance themselves, meaning their health and lives are in danger," said group member Dkéama Alexis. "We wanted to be very careful about not just focusing our efforts on people who are ‘medically vulnerable,’ or people who are at the end of their sentences. … The ambitious goal we have is to get everyone released, but still also advocating for the people who might remain inside, making sure they have access to free testing and free hygiene items, and making sure the jails are as empty as possible.”

Alexis also highlighted the inequity at play within the corrections system. “A majority of the people in jail are there pretrial, incarcerated for the vicious crime of being poor,” Alexis said.

This included attorney Pokorski’s since-freed Jackson Pike client, whose co-defendant was assessed the same bond, but could afford to pay it and was released earlier. “I represent indigent people, and that’s a real concern, that it’s the poor people who are staying in jail with absolutely no means of getting out,” Pokorski said.

In an emailed response to an interview request, the Office of Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien wrote that the Franklin County Jail population had been reduced by 559 inmates in the last three weeks in a focused effort to counter the coronavirus spread.

Jails also tend to be transient, the population shifting as existing inmates post bail and are released and new arrestees are introduced. These constant fluctuations can put those incarcerated at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it inside the jail or even within their communities following release.

“Some women get arrested and are able to make bond, so they might just be [at Jackson Pike] a day or two,” Pokorski said. “And there’s no way of knowing if any of these women are carrying the virus, or have been exposed to it. … And that leaves everyone vulnerable.”