Lorain County Prisons Struggle with COVID Cases, Understaffing, Overcrowding

Recently, Lorain County has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases; however the county’s two prisons have been hotspots for the virus for months. Due to their overcrowding, overworked staff, and insulated environments, Grafton and Lorain Correctional Institutions are seeing high COVID-19 positivity rates. Inmates’ families and activists say that the prisons have been largely unresponsive to their concerns about the growing infection rates.

At Grafton Correctional Institution, 31 staff members have tested positive since the outbreak began. As of Thursday, 47 inmates were in quarantine, and there has been one probable COVID-19-related inmate death. At Lorain Correctional Institution, 52 staff members have tested positive, 14 inmates have current COVID-19 cases, and 261 inmates are in isolation after testing positive.

“You have a population that’s completely not allowed to go back and forth,” said Zachary Thomas, director of Writers in Residence, a program that works with juvenile offenders in Ohio. “So the main transmissions are coming from staff — staff literally bring it in the facility and just transfer it around.”

When inmates test positive for the virus, or begin to show symptoms while quarantined, they generally go into solitary confinement for a period of time determined by a medical provider. However, for inmates who have been exposed to someone with the disease but who didn’t test positive themselves, the quarantine process doesn’t necessarily involve total physical separation.

“You have a three-step process,” said Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell. “You have the COVID-positive, a step down, and then …  a negative unit. So they’ve been doing that, and it really has controlled the scenario pretty well, actually in both Lorain and in Grafton.” 

The step-down unit allows inmates who may have been exposed to COVID-19 to be isolated away from the larger prison population. 

Ohio prisons designate cohorts of inmates to quarantine together, according to JoEllen Smith, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“Our facilities have established cohorts (typically by housing unit assignment) and individuals within those cohorts do not intermingle with other cohorts,” Smith wrote in an email to the Review. “Just like in a residential household, individuals in a correctional setting who are residing in a specific living unit or cohort may interact with one another, but these cohorts do not interact with other cohorts.”

Smith also outlined the day-to-day protocol in place to prevent COVID-19 spread.

“It is required for all staff and incarcerated individuals to wear a face mask and social distance when possible,” Smith wrote. “All incarcerated individuals are provided masks and may request more as needed. All housing units are separated into cohorts to reduce physical contact between the population. There are two inmates to a cell, and the Director instructed bunks be spaced six feet apart in the dormitories.”

ODRC Staff, who are classified as first responders by the Ohio Department of Health, complete a health screening every time they go to work.

Chazidy Bowman, a researcher and organizer with the Ohio Prisoners Justice League, believes state standards for quarantining inmates are inadequate.

“They will not do any [Testing Responses through Agent-based Computational Epidemiology],” Bowman said. “Once [inmates] have symptoms, they’re placed in a hole for 14 days and then they’re brought out. … They’re not given any medicine. They either go critical and go out to the hospital, or they die, or they get well — [those are] the only options.”

Thomas also described lax protocols for quarantined residents in the Lorain County Juvenile Detention Home. 

“The youth that I’ve talked to that’s told me about quarantine, they basically stay on their unit for entire periods of the day,” Thomas said. “When you speak of a unit, let’s just imagine 20 to 25 youth in a single space where it’s like their living quarters, like your beds and stuff, but also [where] they wake up and shower, eat breakfast, watch TV and [play] video games.” 

The juvenile detention center, which is managed by the county, does not publish statistics for COVID-19 cases and deaths for staff or residents.

Even with official distancing and housing measures in place, prisons may not be able to follow these protocols if they are overcrowded. Lorain Correctional Institution, which has a maximum capacity of 1089 people, had a population of 1451 as of July 1. 

Many have also criticized Lorain County’s prisons for being chronically understaffed. In early November, Grafton Correctional Institution called in the Ohio National Guard to supplement its staff and respond to COVID-19 risks.

“We communicate regularly with the Ohio National Guard on our staff support and other operational needs,” Smith wrote. “We greatly appreciate the support and resources they have provided to us.”

In addition to receiving help from the National Guard, the Lorain prisons have also expanded their medical personnel to be ready to respond to COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“They’ve each added people in their medical staff to try to make sure that they were ready for this kind of thing,” Covell said. “So there’s more coordination going on statewide and then also in each prison to make sure that they’re ready for something like this. And they have a pretty good support structure that’s been set up at the state level to really reach in if they need medical advice or anything like that.” 

Bowman said that overcrowding and understaffing are heightening inmates’ risks of both contracting COVID-19 and suffering abuse.

“The ratio [of inmates to staff] is high,” Bowman said. “So that means that some of them are working two and three days at a time. It causes tension between correctional officers and incarcerated people.”

Bowman is also concerned about the tendency for prisons to have recirculated air, meaning staff and inmates continuously breathe the same air without much ventilation.  

The OPJL is currently organizing in support of a state bill, which would allow for emergency releases in prisons that are overcrowded, and advocating for policies requiring all correctional officers in Ohio prisons to wear body cameras. Health and social services workers in prisons are also advocating for an additional pay of  $8 per hour to be authorized by law when the governor declares a state of emergency.

Visitations are currently not permitted in any Ohio prisons. In-person programming, including several programs sponsored by Oberlin College, have also been postponed. According to Smith, during the pandemic inmates have been allowed one free video visit per week, two free phone calls per week, and eight free emails per month.

Isolation from loved ones is a great source of distress, especially for inmates with mental illnesses or who are put on suicide watch. Juvenile residents’ routines in detention can intensify isolation and anxiety. 

“Spending 24 hours a day, maybe going outside for an hour, the rest of those hours are in the same space with the same people over time,” Thomas said. “They get super noisy and a lot of shifts tick you off. So anxiety’s rising. You’re certainly feeling like you are more isolated because you’re in the same space.”

Bowman says her coalition is currently focusing on reviewing a statement submitted by Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the ODRC, in response to a lawsuit filed by four inmates about unsafe prison conditions. The OJLC also collects survey responses from people who call into the prison for wellness check-ins with their loved ones. This log records many health-related disputes with prisons across the state, including one instance in July at Lorain Correctional Institution where an inmate’s Continuous Positive Air Pressure machine was damaged by indoor flooding and the prison required their family to pay for a new one.

According to the ODRC, family members are not notified if an inmate tests positive or is exposed to COVID-19. Inmates’ families only receive notice if they are hospitalized.

Bowman emphasized that communication has always been a point of contention between prisoners’ justice advocates and the ODRC.

“What we’ve discovered is that everything you could possibly imagine that could go wrong, it’s all true,” Bowman said. “We know what’s happened, but it’s always our word against theirs.”

In Ohio, incarcerated people make up 0.4 percent of the population but account for 2.4 percent of COVID-19 cases. People aged 50 and over, who are often at higher-risk for COVID-19, account for almost 19 percent of Ohio’s prison population. Black people are incarcerated at over five times the rate of white people in Ohio.