CLEVELAND — Today the ACLU of Ohio and Policy Matters Ohio released disturbing new data showing that the COVID-19 death rate in Ohio prisons is nearly 10 times higher than in Ohio’s general population.
The groups obtained the data from daily reports from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. ODRC published the first such report on March 26, following pressure from the ACLU of Ohio, Policy Matters and other groups calling for ODRC Director Chambers Smith to enhance transparency by publicly releasing data about testing, positive cases, facilities under quarantine, housing type, isolation frequency, and staff and inmate deaths.
“Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton frequently remind us that Ohio is flattening the curve; however, one thing that isn’t flattening is the death rate in Ohio prisons. Since the first death was reported in Ohio prisons, there hasn’t been a 48 hour period without an increase, and last week we saw the total jump by five within one day. As of today, 64 people have paid the ultimate price. We release these findings to remind DeWine that these deaths were preventable, and that more lives can be saved if broader categories of people are released to a safer environment,” added Jocelyn Rosnick, Policy Director for the ACLU of Ohio.
Compared to the rest of the nation, Ohio as a whole is doing well. Nearly 89,000 Americans, including just over 1,700 Ohioans, died from COVID-19 as of Sunday, May 17, according to the Center for Disease Control. Ohioans, who make up about 3.6% of the U.S. population, account for just about 1.9% of the nation’s total COVID-19 deaths.
Looking just at deaths in the nation’s prisons, however, paints a very different picture of Ohio’s response to the pandemic. As of May 13, 373 people who were incarcerated in the nation’s state and federal prisons had died of COVID-19, including 51 Ohioans, according to the Marshall Project. Incarcerated Ohioans make up nearly 13.7% percent of the nation’s total prison deaths. May 13 is the Marshall Project’s most recent data.
Ohio prisons currently hold 8,950 more people than they were built to and are already dangerously over-crowded. Public health experts advised that until a vaccine exists, the only known protection against COVID-19 is physical distancing coupled with strict hygiene. Over-crowding makes these guidelines impossible to follow in congregate facilities like prisons.
“The success of Governor DeWine’s aggressive repose to COVID-19 is apparent in the data, and so is the failure of his response to the crisis in our prisons,” said Piet van Lier, researcher for Policy Matters. “Governor DeWine says we are all in this together, but that is clearly not true. Accounts from incarcerated people and prison staff in Ohio’s prisons also dispute the rosy scenario painted by the governor. It’s not too late to save lives, but Governor DeWine and his team must act quickly to release thousands more people to create space to care for and protect incarcerated Ohioans. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.”
The ACLU of Ohio sent public records requests to the DeWine administration on April 29 and to the ODRC on May 4, to better understand how Ohio leaders are responding to COVID-19 in Ohio prisons – they have yet to receive responses.