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Inmate provides firsthand account of life in prison overrun with COVID-19

1,950 Marion Correction inmates tested positive
Posted at 6:25 PM, Apr 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-20 23:18:16-04

CLEVELAND, OH — New state numbers show 1,950 inmates and 154 prison workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Marion Correctional following widespread testing for the virus by the state to try and determine who is infected and limit the spread.

Inmate Jimmy Dzelajlija, who is serving a 17 year sentence for robbery and aggravated robbery in Cuyahoga County, talked to 5 On Your Side Investigators by phone about the situation inside Marion Correctional.

He said despite being tested Friday, he has not received the results of his COVID-19 test.

"That's the aggravating part, they won't tell us," said Dzelajlija. "We don't know with the numbers that high, we don't know if we're the ones who have it."

Numbers from Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction show more than three out of every four inmates in the prison are infected.

"They passed out masks, we have little these little face masks that we wear," said Dzelajlija. "Really, that's to be honest, that's it. We're supposed to practice social distancing, but it's impossible. My neighbor is literally three feet away from me, both sides, and behind me. There's no way to practice social distancing here."

He said two people were moved from his dorm to isolation Monday.

"It's like okay, they've been here," said Dzelajlija. "If they're infected and you just found out they were infected based on the test results you took last week, chances are they've infected someone else."

He said the entire unit is locked down and in quarantine to limit movement.

"The frustration is building and building and building among everybody in here," he said. "And tempers are flaring up on just the slightest provocation."

Meanwhile, his wife can only wait for news and pray.

"I saw the numbers and I just broke down bawling," said Azzurra Crispino.

Not only is she Dzelajlija's wife, Crispino is also a prison reform advocate. She worries sick inmates won't have access to the help they need.

"We’ve been saying for a long time now, we don’t want ODRC to be the next Rikers Island," said Crispino. "We don’t want to see mass graves being built in the back of prisons in Ohio."

ODRC said Monday that 38 inmates have been sent to a Columbus hospital for treatment and said many of the other inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 were not showing any symptoms of the virus.

That was echoed Monday by the director of Ohio's Department of Health.

"As we know, there is a significant amount of the population who are really being carriers or vectors without even realizing it," said Dr. Amy Acton.

And that's what scares Crispino. She said even if you don't care about the health of inmates, the threat of workers contracting the virus and carrying it outside prison walls and into the community is real.

"The virus doesn’t distinguish between why the person is in that facility," said Crispino. "From the virus’ perspective, they are still eligible hosts."

It's why she believes it's time for the state to seriously look at reducing it's prison population to try and slow the spread of the virus.

"This is a human rights travesty and public health crisis," said Crispino.

While he waits for a judge to rule on his motion for early release, Dzelajlija said the possibility COVID-19 could be death sentence is on everyone's mind.

"I pray everyday with my wife," he said. "We're strong in our faith. If it turns into a death sentence, then that's what's for me, I guess. I'm not going to stress that part. I just want to be with my family. That's all."