‘Too Little, Too Late’: Inside the Nation’s Worst Coronavirus Hotspot
Even in a state with aggressive coronavirus testing behind bars, inmates and their loved ones are terrified.
In a dimly lit video call, Michael Powell sits with his back to a room full of men, a polka dotted mask over the lower part of his face.
“All the necessary precautions are out the window, there are a few dudes in here right now who have fevers that they are not testing, not taking out of here,” Powell, 32, says from inside the Marion Correctional Facility in Ohio. “It’s pandemonium in the pandemic. It’s really, really bad here.”
The call—shared with The Daily Beast by Powell’s friend Kevin Ballou, a former inmate at Marion who has been sounding the alarm locally about prison conditions—took place earlier this month. Ohio prisons were just beginning to ramp up testing for the COVID-19 virus, which has now killed more than 50,000 Americans.
“Things are looking grim, it’s just a matter of time before we all get it… we just in here, look, all day,” Powell continues, nodding to the full room. “Guys are coughing, there’s no way to escape it.”
By Friday, over 2,000 people, or almost 80 percent of the prison’s population, had tested positive for COVID-19, causing Marion County to become the number one COVID-19 hotspot in the nation, according to The New York Times. At least 15 inmates and one corrections officer have died statewide, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC). Some 150 correctional officers at Marion alone have also tested positive for the coronavirus, and Gov. Mike DeWine called in the National Guard to fill the void.
DeWine has been broadly praised for his response to the pandemic in his state. As other governors were still grappling with half measures to slow the spread of the disease, he ordered the shuttering of businesses and schools quickly, and implemented stay at home orders. Early this month, he ordered mass testing at three prisons where there were confirmed cases of the virus.
But inside the state’s prisons, the response has been chaotic, advocates and family members of inmates say. The situation there suggests that even when officials move relatively quickly to keep pace with a horrific outbreak, America’s massive incarcerated population—and the people who work with them—will be left behind.
“They are scared, worried that death is almost inevitable,” said Ballou, who works as an advocate with a group called Ohio Organizing Collaborative. “The response from the institution has not been strategic. It never really is—they don’t have the proper equipment.”
The problem isn’t confined to the plight of inmates inside the prison walls, either.
Before he tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, Brian Miller, a corrections officer in the medical unit at Marion, was going to work wearing full personal protective equipment, including hard-to-find N95 protective masks. But the gear was no match for 16-hour days, five days a week in such a densely crowded coronavirus hotspot.
Now, Miller is confined to a room in his home—struggling to breathe, feverish, and hoping his wife doesn’t come down with the virus.
“Once we got it, it just spread right through. No matter what [we] did it wasn’t enough,” he told The Daily Beast. “We have the National Guard coming in, I have a feeling that’s too little too late.”
About 6o miles downstate from Marion is Pickaway County, home to another corrections facility that has seen an explosion of cases in the last week.
Roseanne Pollock was hoping her husband wasn’t one of them.
Pollock, 43, of Frankfort, Ohio, said her husband was given a test this week and they were awaiting the results.
“Right now we’re all scared, brokenhearted that people are being treated the way they are, until the results come back,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
Pollock asked that his name not be used, but said he is currently serving three years—two sentences back-to-back—for a nonviolent offense. She claimed she had appealed to the governor and other officials to have him released on house arrest but received no response.
“It’s very stressful, there’s not a day that goes by—if he does have it and something happens and then he dies in prison… I can’t imagine that,” she said.
At the Marion facility, Ballou said another friend described the current atmosphere as a “death camp.”
“People inside are just scared and worried that death is just inevitable,” he said. “They are just holding on and hoping it doesn’t totally just start wiping people out.”
The ODRC has attributed the remarkable spike in positive tests at its facilities to the mass testing, according to a disclaimer in light gray font on the bottom of each daily update posted by the agency. An ODRC spokeswoman did not return a request for comment about the infection rate or the conditions inside Ohio’s correctional facilities.
But advocates say that even if DeWine has been relatively proactive about testing, Ohio prisons were left vulnerable.
“We have a prison system here in Ohio that has been overcrowded for decades,” said Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, who added that the inherent obstacles to social distancing and adequate health care in prisons have just exacerbated the problem.
Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said the situation has been made worse by conflicting guidance issued by the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) and Marion County in particular.
“The Department Health basically says 10 days after the test, my workers can go back, some of the other county health [departments] say your quarantine starts day one after the last day of symptoms after a positive test,” he said.
“This thing’s moving at a rapid pace. We are still catching up. And it’s day by day,” he added.
In a statement, the ODH said it encouraged employers to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines for a longer quarantine. But the agency “recognizes that each situation is unique, and the local health department who investigates a case has information that we may not and defer to their judgement.”
Traci Kinsler, a spokeswoman for Marion Public Health, said officials try to coordinate with each other regarding guidelines, but it’s extremely difficult given the overwhelming number of cases and changing guidelines.
“With all of this in mind, we are trying to communicate regularly and make sure new guidance is provided to all involved when it comes out,” she said.
It’s not just state or local health officials people at the prison say are complicating the response. Mabe added that efforts to solve problems have been stymied at times by the federal government. After spending days trying to find a source of PPE, for instance, he said he was able to secure a shipment through a professional golfer in Australia who is sponsored by a company that manufactures medical supplies.
His success only went so far.
“My distributor told me that we are not going to get them, we can get K95s, but the N95s are being basically picked up at the port by the feds for redistribution and they’ll write the checks and send them to whoever,” Mabe said. Accounts of the federal government seizing or threatening to seize PPE sought by states and doctors have been common in recent weeks.
His members, Mabe added, were constantly worried about bringing home the virus to their loved ones.
“Most of them, when they get home, they strip down—much like first responders—in their garages, in their kitchens, and throw their clothes in the washer and jump in the shower,” he said. “It’s just, it’s an everyday grind to try to maintain your family’s safety and health. Not only just for the institution itself.”
The crisis behind bars in America, of course, a nationwide concern—one the American Civil Liberties Union warns in a new report will only get worse if the populations are not reduced. That applies to jails where people reside before sentencing, as well.
“As a result of the constant movement between jails and the broader community, our jails will act as vectors for the COVID-19 pandemic in our communities,” the report notes. “They will become veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus.”
On April 15, DeWine announced the early release of 105 inmates convicted of non-violent crimes, and asked the ODRC to continue to identify more individuals that could be eligible.
Ballou made the case the state could be doing a lot more to get inmates home—specifically that it could “provide vouchers so they can come home and quarantine for two weeks.”
“Things can be done to prevent more death and prolonged sickness,” he said.
But as the disease festers, any new measures aimed at containing the outbreak among the incarcerated may come too late.
After waiting several days to learn of her husband’s health status, Roseanne Pollock texted The Daily Beast Friday evening that his COVID-19 results were in.
“Yes, he’s positive.”