Inside Marion Correctional With COVID-19: 'We Just Passed It Around'

Marion Correctional
Marion Correctional, in a photo from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. [DRC]
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When Ohio tested all of its prison inmates for the coronavirus, Marion Correctional Institution was found to be a hotspot for COVID-19, with more than 1,900 men – about 80 percent of the prison population – testing positive. 

Staff testing yielded another 177 cases. So many prison staff members were sick or quarantined that the Ohio National Guard was brought in to fill in the gaps.

So far at Marion Correctional, 13 inmates and one staff member have died.

Jason Bernard Thompson, 46, was among the incarcerated men who contracted the virus while in prison. At first, he said, prison medical staff told him he tested negative, then later that same day, he was told a mistake had been made. Thompson had tested positive and needed to be moved to a different part of the prison.

“There were so many people that were dying out there, I was scared,” Thompson said. “I know a lot of people were, too. But, you know, it wasn't something that men talk about in prison... about being scared, worried. But I was definitely scared.”

Jason Thompson stays in a dorm with other incarcerated men who also tested positive for COVID-19 at Marion Correctional. [Jason Thompson]

Thompson is serving a life sentence for a crime he committed at age 18: aggravated murder. He’s had a lot of time to reflect, write and get used to a life behind bars.  He knows what the different seasons bring.

“When the flu comes into the prison, when the cold virus comes in, everybody catches it, we just pass it around to one another – always been like that, all my years inside here,” Thompson said. “So it was the same thing with the COVID-19, like when it hit, all we did was give it to it, like, we couldn't help it. It was the how the penitentiary was designed.”

Though he tested positive, Thompson said he only had some headaches but other than that, felt fine. He now stays in a dorm with about 170 others who’ve tested positive, away from the rest of the prison population. But while all Ohioans are being told to live by the mantra of proper social distancing, Thompson said the prisoners at Marion Corrrectional don’t have that option. It's impossible.

“There is no social distancing in prison,” Thompson said. “Where I sleep at, my bed is only about three or four feet away from people on either side of me. Right now, I'm not six feet away. There is one, two, three, four, five people. And none of them are more than six feet away from me.”

He washes his hands a lot, he wears a mask, Thompson said, although he says a lot of the guys don’t wear masks. And while he wasn’t hit hard by the virus, he worries and said there’s a lot of really sick men in his dorm, including David Brownharris, who Thompson refers to as an “uncle.”

Brownharris recently returned to Marion Correctional from the Intensive Care Unit at Ohio State University Hospital, where he was on a ventilator, fighting for his life after contracting the coronavirus and then pneumonia. He’s doing better now, Brownharris said, but feels like “a piece of me is missing.”

The prison system is doing everything it can to stop the continued spread of COVID-19 in Ohio’s prisons, including mass testing and decreasing movement inside the prison, said Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction  (DRC).

“We have teams of incarcerated adults whose job it is to clean surfaces. That's all they do all day,” Chambers-Smith said at the April 30 coronavirus press conference held by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. “We switched from having three meals a day to having brunch. We have two meals now going on. We basically put breakfast and lunch together and are serving slightly more calories than we were before.”

The point of the reduced meals, according to Chambers-Smith, was to minimize interaction between people and allow for extra sanitization procedures between meals.

But advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Ohio, say the DRC is not doing nearly enough to safeguard people inside prisons.

On a recent Saturday, the Ohio Organizing Collective, a grassroots social justice group, held a small protest outside Marion Correctional. They called for DeWine to release thousands of prisoners, to create more space in Ohio’s prisons.

Protestor outside Marion Correctional. [Finn Conlin]

Among the protestors was Kevin Ballou, a former Marion Correctional prisoner, and who said those behind bars during this pandemic need to be treated and regarded like human beings.

“If we start letting some of these people go who are qualified to go home, then we can clear up space to move people around and to maintain six foot distance, so we don't have more people dying,” Ballou said. “The problem is that the prison was overcrowded. So literally, they cannot solve for distance and the virus will only keep spreading. The only way to do it is to alleviate some of the overcrowding.”

Members of the Ohio Organizing Collective also criticized the DCR’s reduction of meals to one “brunch” and one cold meal, calling it inhumane to deny the incarcerated men their nutritional and caloric needs.

Back inside Marion Correctional, Thompson is waiting, watching the news and writing to release some of his anxiety and to express himself.

No matter what my situation happened to be in so far as prison sentences, I found an inner peace and comfort in testing negative for COVID. However, I struggled emotionally in response to being told by the medical department a mistake had been made in my results. That in fact I had tested positive. With a pre-existing distrust of my relationship with the institution of prison, I became angry covering the fact that I was scared, and thus I relied emotionally on the one person I've been able to rely on my entire life- mom. As soon as she heard my voice, she knew something was wrong and I tried to be strong. But it's mom, you know, and a mother's love is the strongest force on the planet. And I cried again.

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I've listened intently to both CNN and Fox News for the scientists to tell me whether I can catch it twice, cannot contract COVID, fully recover, but then contracted again, or is it possible for the virus to remain dormant in me? Though I showed no symptoms, is my paranoia unwarranted? As I live, breathe and sleep less than three feet away from a host of men who cough and sneeze and vomit repeatedly. 

Thompson said he will continue to try to protect himself, but in such cramped quarters, he said it’s hard not to get fearful. He told ideastream he is hoping to get tested again to see if he still has COVID-19.

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