Ohio Prisons and COVID-19
Written by Cara Robbins // Illustrated by Devin Benko
The problems within Ohio prisons are ugly, and COVID-19 has exacerbated poor conditions and unjust treatment of inmates.
Nothing has exposed the most fractured structures within American society than the current coronavirus pandemic. Deteriorating social structures have dominated the news cycle — police brutality and systemic racism, insufficient access to healthcare, distrust in politicians and the government, boiling party tensions, poverty and income inequality, mental health, and plenty more. With America setting record-high numbers of COVID cases each day, in the midst of a “third wave,” it becomes vital to discuss some of the issues that are swept to the side when discussing the disastrous humanitarian consequences of this virus — namely, how the COVID-19 pandemic has made life within prisons and jails around the country (specifically in Ohio) practically unbearable. Despite the fact that incarcerated populations represent the intersection of poverty, systemic racism, mental health and drug addiction — popular buzzwords in the news cycle — prisons have mostly been left out of the discourse of the coronavirus. This is namely because convicted criminals are not an inherently pitiable group. While reading this, however, I urge you to remember that human beings are complicated individuals and can still deserve sympathy and kindness despite their past.
COVID did not simply take hold of prisons out of the blue — in fact, the reason why the coronavirus has become such an issue in jails and prisons is thanks to plenty of preexisting — often inhumane — issues that allowed for the system to be extremely vulnerable to the virus. Therefore, before jumping in-depth into the present conditions, we must first explore the decades-long problems that have existed within prisons and jails. First and foremost, we must distinguish between prisons and jails. Jails are typically transitional, and hold people awaiting trial, or those convicted of a crime with a sentence of less than a year. Prisons, on the other hand, are more long-term, and hold inmates who are sentenced to anywhere between one year to life. Most of the following institutional problems discussed will pertain specifically to prisons, but by no means do jails exist without systematic issues.
Management of crime and punishment within prisons in Ohio is not up to the basic standards of living — even for basic needs of survival such as food. The state of Ohio currently has privatized the distribution of food in prisons by commissioning the responsibility to the food distributing giant Aramark Corporation. The effect of this decision has since led to plenty of issues surrounding food in prisons — namely, complaints about shortages and sub-quality food. Since Aramark began distributing food to Ohio prisons in 2013, numerous whistleblower Aramark employees reported being unable to supply an adequate amount of food to inmates, which has correlated with an increase of violence, riots and contraband. In the summer of 2014, numerous prisons around Ohio reported the presence of maggots and their larvae in prison meals, eventually leading to a protest of roughly 1,000 inmates at the Ohio Women’s Reformatory in Marysville. The way the state of Ohio rates the value of an inmate's life can be clearly seen in the amount of money spent in a day to feed prisoners: just $3.71, versus the $8.12 it costs to feed the average American citizen.
Another barrier to basic means of survival is the critical state of overcrowding in Ohio prisons. In fact, according to a report done by the ACLU of Ohio, prisons within the state are currently functioning with 11,854 more inmates than they are designed to hold, with no real efforts made to combat the rising danger and cruelty that come with every extra inmate. The state of overcrowding in most prisons comes as a result of policies made in recent years regarding criminal sentencing — namely, criminal legislation within Ohio that adds new crimes, extends the incarceration periods of existing crimes, and enhancing the extent of which crimes apply to certain people and certain situations. Furthermore, in the past 20 years, a significant increase in the prison population has been the result of incarcerating people who are awaiting trial and cannot afford their bail. These people have notably not been found guilty and, according to constitutional law, are assumed innocent until otherwise proven. In essence, Ohio has created a system in which people are placed in already overcrowded jails not because they are criminals, but because they are poor. The consequences of overcrowding can be life-threatening; it creates an environment in which there are not enough resources such as mattresses and food, building on the already dire shortage of nutritious meals. Furthermore, access to hygiene such as soap and sufficient time showering is scant in an overcrowded prison. The stress of being crammed into a small space with other people causes a sharp decrease in the mental health of inmates, and high tensions can lead to added danger for both staff and prisoners with an increased chance for violent outbursts — from both disgruntled inmates with physical force as their last and only bargaining chip and also from prison officers with low morale and limited control over the prison population outside of harmful techniques.
One of the harmful techniques commonly used as a method of punishment or control within prisons around the country (especially in Ohio) is solitary confinement. This method is defined as the extreme isolation of an inmate within a cell for 21 or more hours a day. Solitary confinement is often one of the first responses to all types of misbehavior, ranging from minor disturbances such as making too much noise, spanning all the way to major violations such as inciting violence. Perhaps most disturblingly, isolation in solitary confinement also tends to be the first response for inmates discovered attempting suicide. In light of this information, it isn’t surprising that the use of solitary confinement has severe consequences on both the psyche of a prison population, and how they regard their relationships with correctional officers and other prison staff. In fact, according to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “Solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture”. Solitary confinement can increase suicidal tendencies, and increase anxiety, irritability, and decreased impulse control. Since correctional facilities are already the nation’s largest provider of mental health care, that the first response to misbehavior is inflicting such intense mental stress on a population already extremely susceptible to mental health complications is simply irresponsible. In addition to the damage to mental health, physical consequences of solitary confinement can include weight loss and a lack of appetite — particularly dangerous for prisons in places such as Ohio, where the privatization of prison food means that inmates are already malnourished. As of yet, Ohio has taken no measures to regulate the use of solitary confinement, nor address the serious consequences of this method of punishment.
Finally, possibly the most egregious disregard for human life comes in the form of violence towards prisoners at the hands of correctional officers — the people meant to protect both the public from the inmates, and not insignificantly, protect the inmates themselves. Examples of this kind of abuse can be found uncomfortably close to home. Take, for example, the recent strings of lawsuits filed against the Cuyahoga County Jail on behalf of inmates’ claims of abuse. In September of 2019, a correctional officer was found innocent due to a partial mistrial on charges of interference of civil rights, abuse, falsification, and unlawful restraint. The court case details an encounter between the correctional officer and inmate Joshua Castleberry, in which Castleberry accused the officer of attacking him after he complained about a stale sandwich. The CO sustained light bruises and scratches on his head — the inmate, on the other hand, was left with a bruised face, a cut above his right eye, and three missing teeth (one of which was pushed up through his jaw into his nasal cavity).
Regardless of the guilt or innocence of the correctional officer, this case clearly demonstrates several details about the issues with the responsibilities and capabilities of prison staff. First and foremost is the sheer amount of influence correctional officers can have over determining the amount of value placed on the life of an inmate.
In the case of Joshua Castleberry, the officer involved in the conflict immediately received medical attention, while Castleberry was restrained, put in a spit mask, and placed in solitary confinement for hours. Other correctional officers who were not involved in the conflict declined to let a nurse that arrived on scene examine Castleberry for three hours. After the incident, Castleberry claimed that the spit mask put him at risk of choking on his own blood. Clearly, correctional officers have a significant say in the health care provided, and this responsibility is often not met with the necessary tact. Furthermore, the incident demonstrates the unhealthy culture among prison staff that can arise in correctional facilities. For example, at one point in the trial, an officer who testified reported that his cooperation with the investigation had made other officers volatile towards him due to a “no snitch” culture. The officer in question claimed that because of this, he was afraid that the other officers would not have his back in a dangerous situation later down the line. This type of relationship between officers strongly decreases the security and stability of a prison environment and makes it more difficult to accurately investigate and unearth honest claims of mistreatment from inmates.
Before diving into the conditions the pandemic has inflicted on prisons, we must discuss one final topic: the disproportionate number of Black people incarcerated in Ohio prisons. Despite only representing about 12% of the population in Ohio, Black people constitute about 45% of the population in prisons. This is due to a plethora of reasons linked to the systematic incorporation of racism into American society. Black people are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be searched and arrested, more likely to be given a lengthy sentence, and more likely to be sentenced to death. Furthermore, prisons are more likely to be built in majority-white areas, meaning that most prison staff and correctional officers tend to be white. Because of these foundational aspects of how prisons function, the justice system puts Black Americans at an extreme disadvantage.
The problems discussed above are already bad enough to demand immediate changes to the way prisons and jails function. But with COVID cases hitting record-breaking numbers with each passing day, the situation has become dire. For some of the issues mentioned earlier, it is clear to see how it has played into the coronavirus’s rise in prisons — lack of proper nutrition means that prisoners have a weaker immune system (in addition to the fact that most inmates already have a sub-par immune systems due to either past drug use, physical impacts of mental illness, or other factors). Overcrowding means that it is impossible for inmates to socially distance properly. Facilities don’t have enough space, time, or resources to ensure that every prisoner has access to basic tools of hygiene such as showering, hand sanitizer, masks, and testing. Heightened tensions between correctional officers and inmates demonstrate how COs are not always willing to put the health and safety of inmates as a priority, and inmates may not trust or obey the restrictions put in place by prison staff to protect the health of everyone.
Additionally, Black Americans were already especially at risk of suffering from the coronavirus. Because Black people are more likely to have pr-existing conditions and live in multigenerational homes, while simultaneously being less likely to have health insurance, the African American community is consequentially three times more likely to get the coronavirus than their white counterparts, and twice as likely to die. Because of the fact that the prison population reflects a disproportionate amount of people of color, the coronavirus has yet another opportunity to prey on the unjustly exposed Black community. Furthermore, inherent bias in medicine means that if a Black individual — incarcerated or otherwise — reports feeling unwell or having medical complications, their condition is less likely to be believed or taken seriously than if a white person were to report the same symptoms.
If the state of prisons weren’t already bad enough with the conditions ripe for the coronavirus to run rampant, prison administrators’ responses have been nowhere near sufficient enough to curtail the most serious consequences. In fact, some of the responses have been actively harmful. Take, for example, the experience Jermane Scott reported having at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in July: after he began to feel sick, he reported being unable to breathe properly due to complications from his medical condition. Correctional officers reportedly mocked him with allusions to George Floyd’s last words as he was killed by police officers. When Scott’s COVID-19 test came back positive, he was placed in the decommissioned death row instead of being transported to a proper medical facility. The unit had little working electricity and ventilation. He was forced to stay there for 17 days. This is not unlike the practice that most prisons have incorporated today, in which some inmates are forced to quarantine in solitary confinement — which, regardless of its cruelty and negative health consequences, is meant to be reserved for punishment, not healthcare.
Some inmates within prisons have felt that conditions have become so bad that they are willing to speak about their experiences despite the possible consequences. Aaron Campbell, who is incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Elkton, Ohio, released a video on a contraband phone in which he claims that the facility is leaving inmates to die — he flips his camera, shows the tight, cramped cell he is in and says that his cellmate, who is laying down, is dying of COVID-19. Campbell says that he is filming the video to fight for reform. Since the video was released, FCI Elkton has denied that the two inmates in the video had the virus, and Campbell was placed in solitary confinement. He was supposedly offered release from solitary confinement if he said the video was fake, which he refused to do. No reports concerning his status have come out since September, and he is assumed to still be in solitary confinement.
Inmates are inherently a hard group to be sympathetic for. Dismissing their plight is easy because they had done something unlawful in the past, and therefore, don’t deserve the time, money, and compassion that it would take to make the proper reforms. Regardless of this, conditions must change immediately because the system of justice for crime and punishment has been shattered. Regardless of their crimes, criminals are still guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Is that not the current condition in prisons and jails? Certainly the presence of COVID-19 is unusual in every sense of the word. If you were subjected to the same circumstances as prisoners today, regardless of your guilt or innocence, wouldn’t you consider the treatment to be cruel?
But the need to fix the system goes far beyond the human rights of individuals inside the prisons. The consequences of prison mismanagement can trickle down to nearly every aspect of American life. For example, even though the situation in prisons seems particularly bad, it may be comforting to know that prisons are closed systems, and therefore the virus cannot reach the outside world. But this is not the case — inmates are being released from prisons, and correctional officers and other prison staff have little to no restrictions on where they are able to go outside of work hours, rendering them serious potential spreaders. This does not even take into consideration the fact that jails have a significantly higher flow of individuals in and out of the walls every day, despite having the same health and hazard conditions as prisons. This is a matter that affects everyone.
So what can you do to help? The first step is simple: talk to your friends and family about this issue. You can also consider researching your state and local representatives and writing them emails about what you would like to see done about the state of prisons and jails in regard to inmate treatment and the coronavirus. Research your local prisons and jails and send them emails too — you can start by demanding that they ensure inmates are entitled to free access to phone calls while they are unable to receive visits from their loved ones. You can also research different petitions online, such as this one, that can help alleviate some of the struggles prisoners are facing today. Finally, if you are able, plenty of organizations are looking for donations to help people who have not yet gone to trial, but are in prison because they cannot afford bail. The change starts with you. Any small step is a step forward.