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State Must Step In Before COVID-19 Takes Over Ohio Jails

Cleveland, OH – While doctors, judges, and even sheriffs warn that the mass release of incarcerated people is necessary to prevent uncontrollable COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons, the State of Ohio continues to ignore their cries. 

“Why is Governor DeWine ignoring or rejecting sound medical advice?” asked Lynn Tramonte, Director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “Thousands of doctors are warning that an outbreak of COVID-19 in jails would be disastrous. Ohio’s medical infrastructure is simply not ready for a COVID-19 crisis behind bars. Doctors say, the only way to enforce social distancing inside is to reduce the number of people living together.” 

Tramonte continued: “The lives of incarcerated Ohioans, including immigrants held for the federal government, are not expendable. Ohio must step in and enforce the release of as many people as possible, including immigrants detained for civil ‘status’ violations. Given the leadership the State has shown on other fronts, the lack of a statewide response on this is glaring.”

Harris County (TX) Sheriff Ed Gonzalez directly refuted the line of argument that inmates may be “safer” in jail. “[Releasing] people who pose no risk to the community’s safety is a crucial step to put in place social distancing and hygiene measures inside the jail. Inmates released can be interviewed for services and supervision, and screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Right now, ensuring public health is public safety,” he wrote on Twitter. Harris County is one of the largest in the United States, and at least one inmate there has tested positive for the disease. 

Ohio is one of only four states in the country that failed to issue new rules for courts during the COVID-19 crisis. Some counties have taken matters into their own hands and begun releasing incarcerated people, including those who had been granted bail but were unable to pay. But so far, incarcerated immigrants held for so-called “civil” detention are not among those released. 

Four Ohio counties–Butler, Geauga, Morrow, and Seneca–profit off of detaining immigrants for the federal government while their legal cases continue. Because the federal government has refused to release these individuals despite the potential for COVID-19 illnesses, county jails are quickly becoming immigrant holding facilities. Right now in Morrow County, immigrants held on civil charges comprise 70% of the jail population. Before COVID-19, they were the minority. 

Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiology professor at Yale School of Public Health said: “If you wanted to set up a situation that would promote rapid transmission of a respiratory virus, you would say prison: it’s close quarters, unsanitary, individuals in frequent contact…. You have a gaping wound and you’re giving a Band-Aid. You have to reduce the population load to reduce the risk of infection.”

In Ohio, a staff member at Marion Correctional Institution has tested positive, as has a Franklin County deputy. In Detroit, 39 police officers have tested positive, including the police chief. Two officers have died, and more than a fifth of the police force is quarantined. In New York City, more than 800 police officers and civilian employees have been diagnosed with coronavirus.

“This trajectory shows exactly what can happen in Ohio unless our state officials start taking this seriously,” said Tramonte. “There is still time for the State to step in.” 

“The truth is, we have no idea how many Ohio inmates and officers actually have the disease, given that testing has been so limited. Immigrants detained in Butler County Jail have been quarantined for illnesses, but we don’t know if they have been tested for the disease. The same is happening in Michigan. The Detroit Field Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has jurisdiction over these two states, and they continue to fight the release of every immigrant. That is why the State needs to step in and enforce the mass release of incarcerated Ohioans, including those held for federal immigration matters.”

For more, see:

  • Quotes from doctors, judges, and other experts about COVID-19 and mass incarceration
  • A Q&A with Dr. Laura Chambers-Kersh in the American Prospect
  • A letter to Governor DeWine, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, and county health and law enforcement officials, signed by nearly 60 Ohio organizations and 336 individuals 
  • No Soap. Broken Sinks. We Will All Pay for Coronavirus Ravaging Prisons,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Newsweek, March 26, 2020.
  • The Marshall Project’s reporting on COVID-19, criminal justice, and immigration  
  • Press Call: Ohioans Call on State and Counties to Release Detainees

Follow the Ohio Immigrant Alliance on Twitter @tramontela