Federal judge orders Elkton Prison to transfer inmates out to stop the spread of COVID-19

Updated: Apr. 22, 2020 at 11:16 PM EDT
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COLUMBIANA COUNTY, Ohio (WOIO) - Some of the largest concentrations of COVID-19 cases in Ohio are inside the walls of our prisons.

"Infirmary is overran with sick people, we are locked in, quarantine, we need help, we need someone to care about us,” an Ohio prisoner said in a Facebook video.

On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered the Elkton prison to start releasing inmates. This comes after the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Police Center filed a class action habeas petition following an outbreak of coronavirus cases at the prison.

“I think it’s a great step forward and a necessary step forward,” said Dr. Megan Novisky, a Criminology Professor at Cleveland State University. “I actually joined the ACLU and wrote a content expert declaration in support of their brief and the reason I did that is because I didn’t see anyway possible for them to adequately respond to the conditions in the prison without downsizing their population.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Prison’s website, 52 inmates and 48 staff at Elkton have tested positive for the virus. Six inmates have died from COVID. In the order, the judge says he believes many more inmates have COVID because the prison does not have enough tests. The order says the prison only received 75 tests total. There are 2,400 inmates in the prison.

“I think it’s significant that of the testing they are doing you’re getting a lot of positives back,” Dr. Novisky said.

The judge said recent experiences at Marion Correctional Institution, where nearly 2,000 inmates tested positive for COVID, showed him how quickly the virus can spread through a tightly quartered prison population.

The judge is asking that older prisoners with underlying health conditions be given priority review.

“In a prison, especially a prison like Elton where you have open bay housing you have 60-70, up to 100 people sitting together, sleeping in a similar area, they’re sharing bathrooms, sharing showers and toilets, so they’re all crowded together so it’s not possible for them to be six people apart,” explained Dr. Novisky.

Former Cuyahoga County commissioner Jimmy Dimora is a housed at Elkton for corruption charges. 19 News reached out to his attorney to see if he could be considered for release, but so far, we haven’t heard back.

“Not everyone is just going to be released,” explained Dr. Novisky. “They’re going to develop a plan to either transition them to home confinement or transition them to another prison that is at lower risk for infection or that isn’t overcrowded or they might consider something called compassionate release where a person has such significant health problems where they’re not very likely to live very long anyway. They’re not just looking at opening the doors and letting everyone out.”

The inmates transferred out must be under quarantine for two weeks and they cannot return to the prison until the threat of the virus is over or a vaccine is available.

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