HIV-positive inmate argues imprisonment during COVID-19 is a death sentence
Derek Lichtenwalter, 44, argued that he is a non-violent offender and is considered high-risk because of his HIV diagnosis
By Adam Ferrise
The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND — An HIV-positive Ohio prison inmate is arguing to the state’s high court that remaining imprisoned during the coronavirus pandemic could be a death sentence for him and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration respond to the case by Monday.
Derek Lichtenwalter, who is serving a 30-month sentence for leading police, sheriff deputies and state troopers on an hour-long chase in Guernsey County, filed the lawsuit without an attorney March 19.
Lichtenwalter, 44, argued that he is a non-violent offender and is considered high-risk because of his HIV diagnosis. He also noted that Ohio prisons could not guarantee the social-distancing and hygiene guidelines required by state and federal health officials to help stem the spread of the virus.
DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney declined to comment. A message left for Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections spokeswoman JoEllen Smith was not immediately returned.
People with immunodeficiency disorders are especially vulnerable to Covid-19. DeWine on March 16 issued specific orders to the prison system that aims at stopping a coronavirus outbreak in the prison and jail systems, including screening all incoming inmates and possibly refusing prisoners with coronavirus symptoms.
DeWine said at a news conference on Wednesday that no Ohio prison inmates have tested positive for Covid-19.
Lichtenwalter argued that the state has a legal obligation to protect inmates from unnecessary harm. He said because he is serving non-mandatory prison time and is considered high-risk for Covid-19, he should be released.
He said he’s currently in an area of Belmont Correctional Institution, in southeastern Ohio, where he is consistently within three or four feet about 126 other inmates. He said it’s impossible for the prison to enact proper social distancing of six feet.
Lichtenwalter likened an outbreak at the jail to playing Russian roulette.
“The Common areas are overcrowded and what this means is once it gets to the prison it will be spread quickly through the population,” Lichtenwalter wrote. “The death rate of 1-5 percent is high enough, yet I am with chronic health problems.”
He wrote he and other inmates serving time for low-level offenses could return to the prison after the outbreak subsides, or until there is a vaccine readily available to the public.
He likened the situation in prison to an outbreak at the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirtland, Washington, where 129 people were infected and 29 died.
“Please understand that there is no way that once the coronavirus, covid-19 gets to prison it will be able to be contained, and once it spreads many will die who need not and who otherwise would be home within a few months to a few years,” Lichtenwalter wrote.
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