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Ohio Prisons' Coronavirus Policies Fall Short Of CDC Guidelines

The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections began releasing coronavirus testing results on March 25. No one inmates have tested positive. [Michael Coghlan / flickr]
photo of prison cell

Ohio’s prison administrators are posting daily updates on coronavirus in the state’s facilities but those reports raise questions about the pandemic-related policies adopted by Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC).

Each afternoon, ODRC posts the number of tests performed, the test results, how many people are in isolation and how many are under quarantine, and which prisons they’re in.

Based on those reports, ODRC does not appear to be following the federal government’s best practices to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Since the first report on March 25, sick inmates have been listed as in isolation at multiple prisons until coronavirus test results come back. But no inmate at any prison has been put under quarantine.

There have been no confirmed cases among inmates, but one staff member at Marion Correctional Institution showed coronavirus symptoms on March 2. A positive test was announced Sunday.

According to Henry Boom, the head of the infectious diseases division at University Hospitals, any close contact of a suspected case should be placed under quarantine.

“In a prison setting, obviously people are very close, there may be cellmates and so people who come in close contact,” Boom said. “You would not only need to isolate the primary person who is ill but also at least try to isolate the close contact for at least the two-week period of time to make sure there isn't transmission occurring or that they can't transmit it further.”

Quarantine and isolation practices depend on what’s available at each of the prisons, Boom said. According to ODRC, the prisons are following prison health authority and state health department guidance.

But they don’t appear to be following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC issued coronavirus guidelines for prisons and detention facilities on March 23, which include this recommendation: “Incarcerated/detained persons who are close contacts of a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case (whether the case is another incarcerated/detained person, staff member, or visitor) should be placed under quarantine for 14 days.”

As of March 29, Ohio’s prisons had performed 20 tests on inmates, with 18 negatives and two still-pending results. Those two inmates were being held in isolation at Grafton and Richland Correctional Institutions while awaiting results.

Prior to that, in addition to no reported quarantine of those who came into close contact with sick individuals, people who were sick and in isolation were immediately moved out of isolation after their tests came back negative.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.