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ACLU asks Ohio to release more prison inmates

WARREN — The Ohio ACLU wants to know more about how the state has handled COVID-19 response in prisons, and is urging the state to release more people to reduce the risk of the virus spreading among inmates, prison staff and the communities housing the prisons.

Since the state announced it was taking efforts to reduce the prison population during the pandemic, 129 prisoners of 183 identified as eligible have been released under the special rules, according to numbers provided Thursday by Dan Tierney, Gov. Mike DeWine’s press secretary.

Seven pregnant or postpartum mothers were released, eight people over 60 were released, seven were given clemency and 107 other emergency releases have gone through, according to the numbers Tierney provided.

Combined with other efforts by judges to postpone and divert sentencing and people being released because they are within 90 days of the end of their sentence, the state’s 49,000-person prison population has been alleviated by 1,379 people since March 24, Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said Thursday during DeWine’s daily news conference.

“We do want to have a reduction. We want to do it safely,” Chambers-Smith said.

Chambers-Smith said prisons have helped inmates distance by housing them in nontraditional housing such as tents, gyms and chapels and using the spaces left open after releases.

But the amount of people released is still only a “drop in the bucket,” according to the Ohio ACLU and other advocate groups.

Tierney declined to comment about claims that the state’s prison system needs to do more to reduce the prison population, which was at 130 percent capacity before the pandemic began.

Four of Ohio’s prisons have been hot spots for infection.

“We warned Gov. DeWine that COVID-19 would spread like wildfire behind bars, and it is. Marion Correctional Institution is reported to have the largest number of positive cases in the entire United States. Despite this information, Gov. DeWine has only released about 1 percent of Ohio’s total prison population, which is already over capacity by over 10,000 people,” Jocelyn Rosnick, policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, said.

In order to see “the bigger picture” when it comes to how Ohio has addressed COVID-19 in the prisons, the Ohio ACLU sent DeWine’s office a record request Wednesday.

“Public health experts have rung multiple alarm bells about the spread of COVID-19 in our prison system. Despite those warnings, the decarceration of jails, prisons and other detention facilities continues much too slowly to avoid catastrophe,” Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, said. “The ACLU of Ohio seeks greater understanding regarding Ohio’s response to COVID-19 and mass incarceration, including actions taken — and not taken — by Gov. DeWine.”

A first-of-its-kind epidemiological model shows as many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 — double the government estimate — if the federal government and states fail to release people from jails as part of the public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to the Ohio ACLU’s record request.

As of Thursday, 3,964 prison staff or inmates tested positive for infections, two staff members have died and 28 to 30 inmates died from the virus in ODRC facilities, according to numbers provided by ODRC.

The Ohio ACLU wants DeWine’s office to release in two week documents related to:

∫ Records containing recommendations, proposals, calculations, forecasts, plans and procedures, currently in use and not in use, for accomplishing social distancing and reducing Ohio’s prison population related to COVID-19 concerns;

∫ Records containing information regarding the re-entry of individuals released from Ohio prisons back into their community;

∫ Records sent or received regarding the formal deployment of the Ohio National Guard in any Ohio prison and the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution. Specifically, information about the Guard’s duties, mandates, and restrictions on duties performed in the prisons.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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