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Ohio prisons chief, juvenile officials: extensive efforts have kept coronavirus at bay - News - The Columbus Dispatch


So far, the prisons haven’t even experienced an outbreak of the normal seasonal flu. But they’re listening to projections that COVID-19 outbreaks are likely and preparing accordingly.

Ohio’s prison system has taken fulsome measures to keep the nearly 50,000 it houses safe from coronavirus, the system’s top official said Wednesday.

Piet van Lier, a researcher for the watchdog group Policy Matters Ohio, said it’s especially critical to protect those in state custody.

“Prisons and jails can be disease incubators for both people who are incarcerated and staff,” he said in a written statement. “Workers who are exposed can carry the virus home, spreading disease to their families and communities. Incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

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“Because disease can spread quickly in crowded jails and prisons, they’re likely to produce large numbers of patients at the same time, overwhelming not only institutional healthcare systems but the capacity of nearby hospitals to which they may be transferred.”

Working from and improving upon a 10-year-old pandemic plan, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction suspended visits early last week, stockpiled cleaning supplies, and issued guidance to wardens in lower-security facilities to organize prisoners into limited cohorts and keep them away from other groups, said Director Annette Chambers-Smith.

“Each prison is trying to keep as much distance (between inmates) as possible and where they can’t, they’re trying to keep the same cohorts together as much as possible,” she said.

Also, jails are under orders to screen inmates for COVID-19 before they’re sent along to state prison facilities and once there, they’re housed in reception centers for five weeks. In addition, inmate work away from state property has been suspended. Meanwhile, sanitation teams made up of inmates are wiping down surfaces in the prisons daily, Chambers-Smith said.

Prison health officials so far have tested fewer than 10 inmates for coronavirus, and “every single case we’ve tested so far has come back negative,” Chambers-Smith said. The Ohio Department of Health has been able to produce results from the tests in about eight hours, she added.

Chambers-Smith also waived prison rules against alcohol-based hand sanitizer so they have a supply of that as well. The substance had been banned because it’s flammable. When sanitizer runs out, the prison system will fall back on an old standby.

“We have plenty of soap, and we make soap,” Chambers-Smith said.

Similarly, the Ohio Department of Youth Services has suspended visitation, curtailed staff travel and has been cleaning its facilities seven times a day. The system houses 458 youth at its three juvenile correctional facilities and its alternative placement centers.

In addition to inmates, prison staffers are being questioned about their health each time they come to work. Depending on what they say, some are having their temperatures taken and being sent home.

So far, Chambers-Smith said, the prisons haven’t even experienced an outbreak of the normal seasonal flu. But she said public-health projections seem to indicate that there will be COVID-19 cases in Ohio prisons.

The system has a 2,000-person medical staff as well as protective equipment and quarantine and isolation plans, Chambers-Smith said. But if an inmate gets sick enough to require a ventilator, “that is not a level of care we can provide,” she said.

The prison system has arrangements with Ohio hospitals to care for patients who become that ill. But whether the hospitals can provide that care depends on whether cases of COVID-19 surge among the general population to a point that overwhelms hospitals. That’s why health officials are urging Ohioans to stay home whenever possible, avoid large groups, keep a 6-foot distance from others, wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face.

In the absence of visits, ODRC is providing inmates with extra calls, video visits and emails free of charge, Chambers-Smith said.

To allow inmates and families to report problems in the prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has set up a hotline they can use.

mschladen@dispatch.com

@martyschladen

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