Ohio prison worker tests positive; inmate sues for release

Posted at 9:06 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 21:06:00-04

COLUMBUS — An Ohio prison employee tested positive for the coronavirus, the state reported Sunday night, marking the first such occurrence in Ohio at a time of growing national fears about the impact of the virus in crowded jails and prisons.

The employee at Marion Correctional Institution in north-central Ohio last worked March 24, began showing symptoms March 25 and reported the positive test Sunday, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said. The person is at home recovering.

The employee is part of the prison’s “custody staff,” spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said Monday, a category that can include guards and supervisors such as lieutenants and captains. The prison is prohibiting inmate and employee transfers out of the facility and is restricting movement inside, the agency said.

ADVERTISEMENTIn response, five prison employees without symptoms were ordered to self-quarantine at home, as were four employees with symptoms, Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday.

All employees have been screened since March 11 before entering Ohio prisons, including having their temperature taken, DeWine said.

“Whenever you have a significant number of people who are together, whatever the circumstances, that is a concern,” the governor said.

Systemwide, the prisons department is now allowing alcohol-based hand sanitizer and limiting prison access to employees and necessary contractors who undergo health screens, said agency Director Annette Chambers-Smith

“We have worked for several weeks implementing changes within our operations to address the challenges presented by COVID-19,” Chambers-Smith said.

Prison guards and state youth detention facility officers can now bring in their own face masks, whether home-made or medical quality, under an agreement with the state, Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said Monday.

“Any barrier is better than nothing,” he said. The union is also looking to buy its own supplies of masks, and has asked the state to provide hazardous pay for staff because of the risk of contagion, Mabe said.

News of the employee’s positive test came as the Ohio Supreme Court considered a lawsuit filed by an inmate seeking release from Belmont Correctional Facility over fears of the virus.

The prisoner, Derek Lichtenwalter, is serving a two-year sentence out of Guernsey County on a “failure to comply” charge. There is no way to carry out proper social distancing, the inmate said in a March 19 complaint filed with the court.

The prison’s “bed areas are so crowded that I am within three feet of at least twelve people and those twelve are in the same position this means that there are 126 people in my ‘dorm’ that are within 3-4 feet of each other,” the complaint says. “The Common areas are overcrowded and what this means is once it gets to the prison it will be spread quickly through the population.”

Lichtenwalter said he’s willing to return to prison to finish his sentence once the danger has passed.

The state asked the court Monday to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Lichtenwalter doesn’t have “a clear legal right to be released from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” a move that would require a court order, according to the state.

“There are no laws or legislative decisions ordering the release of incarcerated individuals in the wake of a pandemic,” Jared Lee and Michael Walton, assistant attorneys general, said in the state’s filing.

Also Monday, DeWine said Ohio inmates are producing personal protective equipment, with 500 hospital gowns made to date and plans to soon manufacture 5,000 surgical masks a day along with hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer.

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