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Left in the Dark to Die

COVID-positive inmates kept in moldy basements. Families left uninformed. Now most states aren’t making vaccinating inmates a top priority.
January 28, 2021
Left in the Dark to Die
The son of an inmate holds a sign at a rally to bring awareness to the conditions inside the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio on May 2, 2020—when the prison was a major COVID hotspot. Some 80 percent of the overcrowded state-run prison’s inmates contracted COVID. (Photo by Megan Jelinger / AFP / Getty)

Kameka Talley couldn’t find her father.

Zollie Mock Talley, 74, who had served most of a ten-year sentence on a felony drugs charge in the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in northeastern Ohio, regularly called home to his family in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Kameka remembers that he sounded fine when they talked on Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020.

But when Kameka and her family had a video chat with her father two days later, Mr. Talley was so weak he couldn’t even hold the tablet up to show his face. On May 14, the prison staff put him on the phone but he didn’t sound right. A few hours later, the staff notified his family that he had been rushed by ambulance to a hospital.

No other information was provided for a day. Not even his location.

Kameka said her dad took care of his health while in prison—he took mile-long runs during rec time—so the family was optimistic. But the lack of information after her father’s hospitalization was worrisome.

She started calling about his condition and begging to know where he was. The nursing staff at the prison—which is operated by the prison-management company CoreCivic on a contract with the Ohio prisons department—was the only contact at the prison who gave her updates.

“They [the prison nurses] told me several times he was doing better, but I don’t think they knew,” Kameka said. “I don’t think they visited him at all.”

The last week of May, the family was finally told which ICU Mr. Talley was staying in. They were allowed to visit. By then, Kameka said, he was on a ventilator and on emergency dialysis. He died on May 30.

“When he died, we came to see him again, and he still had cuffs on his hands,” she said. “They treated him like an animal.”

Kameka says her father was never put into quarantine within the prison but was immediately sent to the hospital once the prison staff learned he had COVID-19. But given the nurses’ initial claims that he was doing better, she’s not trusting the prison’s version of the story about her father’s care.

“Until I see his medical records, I’ll believe they knew earlier and thought he’d beat it.” She and her twin sister have an attorney petitioning for the release of their father’s records.

Chazidy Bowman, the co-founder of the Ohio Prison Justice League, said that this situation is all too common among those who lose a family member: “Some don’t know their loved one is hospitalized for almost a month. Some lag in the notification has happened with all five families I’ve helped through this.”

Once a week, the group has volunteers call officials at every prison facility in the state and try to contact inmates who have filed complaints. Tiffany Farmer, one member of the group, said, “I started doing them in June. We called each facility on a list; each of us has a list. We ask specific questions in regards to the whole facilities: Are there any problems with the mail? Are offenders eating in chow hall or their rooms? Are they able to earn good days? Are they doing any [activities and work] programming? How many positive COVID cases do they have? How many staff positives? How many in quarantine?”

The group keeps track of each facility’s condition in a ledger started last March, all in the hopes that they might avert tragedies like the one experienced by Kameka Talley and her family. Some volunteers have developed a point of contact within facilities who can help them gain information faster. Getting a bed-check at the right time could determine if someone lives or dies.

Bowman worries about one facility in particular: the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. “It took me a long time to gain their trust,” she said. “The sick are sent to the unused basement where they set up makeshift beds. It’s cold, it’s wet and moldy. The prison says they aren’t sending anyone to the basement. It’s the incarcerated people’s word against theirs. We have no way to prove it, no access to validate the complaints they tell us.”

Every facility they talk to has no programming at this time, Bowman says—things like education, recreation, and, most important for the women in Marysville, drug counseling. According to the Sentencing Project, 26 percent of women in prison in the United States have been convicted of drug-related offenses; in Ohio, that figure is 34 percent. Ohio also has one of the highest female incarcerated populations in the country at 5,000 and growing, primarily due to another national epidemic: opioid abuse.

Teresa Miller, also a member of Ohio Prisoners Justice League, said her husband was reluctant to ask for help when he fell ill. “He had symptoms for two days: a sore throat, runny nose, not feeling good, and his stomach was upset. Because he had no fever, they wouldn’t test him for COVID. I had to beg him to tell them because they get put in the hole [solitary confinement] for 14 days with no medical care. If he’s sent to solitary, there are three outcomes: he’ll get sicker, go critical and go to the hospital, die alone, or recover.”

Family members can’t press the facilities to help; only inmates can. Complaints are only looked into if an inmate files it with Ohio’s Correctional Institute Investigation Committee (CIIC). But filing complaints is no simple matter: The complaints are electronic, and prison computers aren’t always working, and, depending on the infection level, they might not be accessible by inmates at all.

“The incarcerated person also has to be willing to risk retribution by the correction officers if they do a report,” Bowman said. “If they do file a complaint, we press the CIIC to look into it.”

Last spring, a few states explored releasing lower-level offenders who may not be a danger to the public, with the aim of reducing the risk of prisons becoming hotspots. In Louisiana, a special panel was established last April to consider early releases for more than a thousand inmates; by the time the panel was disbanded, fewer than 70 inmates out of the state’s total of 50,000 had been released. Here in Ohio, thousands of inmates tested positive in the state’s 28 prisons—some so overcrowded that they resulted in bizarre headlines: “The Prison Was Built to Hold 1,500 Inmates. It Had Over 2,000 Coronavirus Cases.” Governor Mike DeWine ordered prison officials to consider early release only for nonviolent offenders with health risks and near the end of their sentences.

Similar debates about early release occurred at the federal level. In Ohio, the federal prison near Elkton was the subject of major legal wrangling: Since conditions in the prison apparently don’t permit social distancing, a judge ordered the expedited release of about 800 prisoners in May 2020; the Supreme Court blocked that order in June 2020; and more than 850 inmates—almost half the Elkton prison population—and 50 staff would soon test positive for COVID. Nine prisoners would die of it.

Meanwhile, the data about how prisons are faring against COVID is incomplete and the testing rates are not nearly at the level they would have to be to bring the pandemic under control. “No facility is doing universal testing,” according to Piet van Lier of the Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal think tank. “They only test when there’s a fever, and that’s not always a symptom of COVID-19. I’ve heard stories of inmates who test positive going back to their cells and infecting healthy cellmates.”

Van Lier continued:

In some prisons, people with symptoms are sent to unused areas in need of renovation. In other prisons, people without symptoms are sent to these areas. There are mold, rodent infestations, and less heat or air circulation. Everything we hear from inside and from correction officers is that there’s no strategic plan for dealing with this. There’s no policy on who gets what PPE; guards regularly rotate between infected and healthy populations, possibly spreading the virus.

Of the fifty states, Ohio currently has the fourth-highest total of prisoner deaths in state-run prison facilities, according to the Marshall Project. (The three states with higher prisoner death totals, Florida, Texas, and California, all have much larger total populations.) That’s a death rate of about 27 dead per 10,000 prisoners, among the worst rates in the country. Last April, a quarter of all COVID-19 cases in Ohio were from state prisons.

Van Lier said getting demographic data from the facilities is very difficult. He has no idea about the race or age of the dead. Nor their names: “They delete them off the online offender search right after they die.”

The Ohio prisons department does put some data online, including daily updates of test numbers. But the state doesn’t list the number of current COVID patients, only the number of positive COVID tests in the current month. The state did try mass testing last April, when infections in Ohio’s prisons peaked, but it found that the mass testing didn’t help mitigate infections, so Ohio switched to a clinical and intake model for testing.

Piet van Lier says the data is not transparent enough: “It’s not clear who they are testing and why.”

As of this writing, the state prisons department has not responded to questions about family notifications and demographic data.

Ohio corrections officers don’t fare much better than the prisoners. So far, 9 of the state’s prison staff have died of COVID, of over 4,300 cases of the disease among prison staff. Bowman keeps in touch with a few corrections officers who complain they’re forced to work 12-hour shifts, often being told to stay on for 4 hours beyond the end of their shifts.

A spokesperson for the prisons department, JoEllen Smith, said that the staff are paid hazard pay and given 40 hours of extra sick time, and that the hazard pay will continue into March 2021. Even so, the compensation hasn’t been enough to prevent severe staff shortages.

Last November, the Grafton Correctional Institution called in the National Guard to make up for staff shortages, as too many correction officers were either sick or in quarantine. Ohio isn’t alone in resorting to the Guard: South Carolina, Montana, Illinois, New York, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, and Colorado have also all called up guardsmen to replace correction officers at state or federal facilities.

Nationwide, over 2,200 prisoners have reportedly died, but experts say the real figure is likely higher. The reporting by many institutions is spotty at best. According to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a project of a Washington-based nonprofit organization, prisoners are four times as likely to get the virus as the general population and twice as likely to die of it. In Ohio, inmates are eleven times more likely to die.

There’s considerable debate happening nationally about where prisoners should fit on the vaccination-priority list, with justice and health policy advocates agreeing they should be near the top. In a Marshall Project article, Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said it would be “immoral” not to focus the vaccines on high-risk populations, including prisons. Six states have prioritized both staff and inmates in phase 1 rollout, while other states and the federal system are only prioritizing staff. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Tom Inglesby of Johns Hopkins said that almost all of the 40 largest outbreaks across the United States are near a correctional facility.

While pundits and politicians like Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, have put this in a “we won’t vaccinate criminals first” context, experts and activists have pointed out that vaccinating prisoners is good for everyone. According to the Prison Policy Institute, half a million of the 6 million total COVID cases in August 2020 were traced to correctional facilities. And according to the Marshall Project, 225,000 of those cases were infections outside of the facilities, only 50,000 fewer than the infections found in the prisons.

Each prisoner and each guard has a loved one or family member outside, waiting and hoping the silent killer in their midst doesn’t take their breath away forever. As Nelson Mandela once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Keith Osmun

Keith Osmun is an editor and writer from Cleveland. Homepage: