Virus outbreak in Ohio prisons highlights risk at US lockups

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This Monday, April 20, 2020, photo, shows the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio. A massive coronavirus outbreak that has sickened nearly 4,000 inmates in Ohio has highlighted the dangers lurking in the nations correctional facilities during the pandemic and what system-wide testing reveals about the scope of infections behind prison walls. (Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A massive coronavirus outbreak that has sickened nearly 4,000 inmates in Ohio has highlighted the dangers lurking in the nation’s correctional facilities during the pandemic and what system-wide testing reveals about the scope of infections behind prison walls.

The state ordered testing in prisons earlier this month as infections began to streak through guards, and this week the spike sent Ohio's broader tally of virus cases to nearly 14,000, including more than 550 deaths and over 2,600 hospitalizations.

Prisons have been a major focus of concern since the virus first hit the United States, which incarcerates more people than any other nation — about 1.3 million inmates in state prisons and another 180,000 in federal penitentiaries.

With inmates crammed together in small cells, and eating and exercising in large groups, conditions are ripe for the virus to spread quickly and silently. Hygiene varies widely, and supplies such as soap aren’t always available. Medical treatment and release rates vary widely, making it difficult to track sick inmates who are paroled and the quality of care they receive inside.

“Prison is set up for everything to be close — there is no social distancing,” Cornelius Patterson Jr., a 40-year-old serving 30 years to life for aggravated murder at the Marion Correctional Institution in north-central Ohio, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Systemwide in Ohio, 3,762 inmates have tested positive and nine have died, including seven at the Pickaway Correctional Institution, southwest of Columbus. The head of the prison guards’ union is in self-quarantine after his wife, a guard at the Lorain Correctional Institution, tested positive.

The numbers at Marion are particularly eye-popping: Of about 2,500 total inmates, 2,011 have tested positive according to figures from the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. In addition, 154 employees have tested positive out of a staff of about 350, which includes about 295 guards, forcing those remaining to work 16-hour shifts. One guard has died.

Across the country there are similar stories of flareups in densely packed prison populations.