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Inmate families want judicial release fast-tracked

Fears over COVID-19 infections in Ohio prisons
Posted at 4:01 PM, Apr 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-13 18:11:38-04

CLEVELAND, OH — Families of some Ohio prison inmates are calling on judges, prosecutors and clerks to fast-track the judicial review process for those nearing the end of their sentences in hopes of keeping inmates safe from COVID-19.

"Please remember that every single person who is locked up is someone's child, someone's friend, someone's brother or sister," said prison reform advocate Azzurra Crispino with the group Prison Abolition Prisoner Support. "They're people."

It's an issue that hits close to Crispino's heart. Last summer she married James Dzelajlija, who's serving a 17-year sentence for aggravated robbery and robbery in Cuyahoga County.

Dzelajlija is an inmate at Marion Correctional Facility. The state says 17 inmates there have tested positive for COVID-19 along with 55 members of the jail staff, including one who died last week.

"From what he's telling me, the dorm next to his is one of the dorms where there have been confirmed cases," said Crispino, "and that dorm shares a hallway with his and that's the same hallway he uses to go to rec."

Crispino said her husband knows his crime was wrong. Now, after serving nearly 13 years of his sentence, he's asked a judge to consider the 38-year-old for early release.

Governor Mike DeWine said all inmates in prisons with confirmed COVID-19 cases will be tested for the virus. He said he's also directing more protective equipment be sent to prisons and submitted a number of inmates nearing the end of their sentences for consideration for early release.

"This is something I take very seriously," said DeWine. "We have a responsibility to the employees, DRC employees. We have a responsibility to the prisoners in our case. And we will do everything we can to try to keep them safe."

But Crispino worries it's not enough. She wants judges to begin considering more inmates nearing the ends of their sentences for early release.

In his motion for judicial release, Dzelajlija's attorney said his client has asthma and that social distancing inside the prison is impossible.

Normally, Crispino said, her husband wouldn't be eligible for early release yet, but she worries keeping him in prison could be a death sentence.

"They weren't sentenced to die from a virus," Crispino said. "They were sentenced to a prison term. And for those close to the end of that term, the safest and best thing to do for the community as a whole is to release them in a responsible way so we can all remain safe."

Crispino believes all inmates who are released should be placed in quarantine. That way, she said, if inmates were exposed to the virus, they don't get others sick.

She also stressed that judges could order any inmates released early be placed on probation so that they remain under supervision and could be returned to prison if they get in trouble.