Ohio ACLU Sues Grafton Correctional Institute for Garnishing COVID-19 Relief Funds

On April 12, The Ohio Justice & Policy Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, the Grafton Correctional Institute, and the Marion Correctional Institute. The suit claims that the ODRC took the COVID-relief checks away from incarcerated Ohioans to pay court fees and fines.

Michael Zuckerman, an OJPC attorney, spoke to the necessity of these relief checks for incarcerated Ohioans in an April 13 article in The Morning Journal

“Incarcerated people and their families are some of the most economically vulnerable people in our society,” Zuckerman said. “They have also been heavily, heavily impacted by COVID-19. If anything, they need this emergency relief more, not less, than the average recipient. But only incarcerated Ohioans are having their emergency relief checks garnished in this way.” 

One of the plaintiffs, Kenneth Woodson, has faced financial challenges since the start of the pandemic. According to the April 13 article, of the $1,200 that Woodson was awarded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the prison seized $869.

At Grafton Correctional Institution, Woodson works as a porter, making just $18 per month. From these wages and money sent to him by family members who have since lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, he supplements food and hygiene products by purchasing goods through the prison commissary; CARES Act assistance is essential to Woodson’s livelihood. 

According to Zuckerman, incarcerated people must buy health care items — including hygiene products — and often food, because prison meals fail to meet nutritional standards. Incarcerated people also use funds to communicate with people outside of prison. 

“They also want to communicate with their loved ones, which in prison means buying phone time and electronic messages at prices way above what non-incarcerated people pay to make a call or send an email or text,” Zuckerman said. 

The lawsuit asserts that Woodson often has to choose between talking with his family members and buying necessities. 

Despite Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s statement exempting Ohioans’ emergency aid checks from garnishment, the policy remains in place. According to Zuckerman, this occurs because of the overwhelming control that Ohio prisons have over the lives of incarcerated people. 

“When stimulus checks came in from the IRS, Ohio prisons simply seized them before they could be delivered,” Zuckerman said. “We think their decision to do that violates the law.” 

Zuckerman argues that the policy is unconstitutional, according to national and Ohio state law.

“This garnishing of incarcerated people’s COVID relief checks is unconscionable and illegal,” said Jane and Eric Nord Associate Professor of Africana Studies Pam Brooks. “The harm this creates is self-evident and that means no recourse for people who are already exploited.”

“At the very least, the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions prohibit government actors from treating people differently when there is no reasonable basis for doing so,” Zuckerman said. “In this situation, there is no reasonable basis for treating people in Ohio’s prisons differently from all other Ohioans, who will not have their emergency relief funds seized in this way.”

Zuckerman also points out that those directly impacted by the garnishment policy, like Woodson, are at the forefront of the charge advocating for change.