Ohio CO on COVID-19: 'We've never experienced anything like this before'
Officer Brian Miller, who has worked at the Marion Correctional Institution for 20 years, said he doesn't know "how this thing got out of control"
By Sarah Volpenhein
MARION, Ohio — A flare-up of the novel coronavirus at a Marion prison has decimated staff, dozens of whom have fallen ill to the virus, new numbers show.
At least 34 staff members and nine inmates at Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Test results were pending Wednesday for two more prisoners at MCI.
MCI Corrections Officer Brian Miller said he has never experienced anything like this in the 20 years he has worked at the prison.
"I don't know how this thing got out of control, ... but it did," he said. "This whole virus and the way it moves and the way it's contracted ... is totally unprecedented, and to have this many people sick at one time — we've never experienced anything like this before."
The outbreak has left the prison badly understaffed, Miller said. Not only has the prison lost the corrections officers who have tested positive for the virus, but others who are under quarantine.
Corrections officers on one shift sometimes have to stay and work the next, working 16-hour shifts, he said.
Miller himself was quarantined for several days because he had been in contact with the first person at MCI to test positive, he said. He has since returned to work after his COVID-19 test came back negative, he said.
On top of it all, a friend of his and veteran corrections officer at MCI died Wednesday from COVID-19. John Dawson, 55, of Mansfield, had been the second corrections officer at MCI to test positive for the disease on March 30, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday.
"It really hit home because we don't know if we're going to come home and see our loved ones again," Miller said. "To go in there knowing that you could come out sick and nothing could be done about it, it's scary for all the staff involved. But we're still doing it."
The inmates, too, are frightened, say family members who have contacted the Star, most of whom asked not to be named.
Past and current prison employees say social distancing at Ohio prisons is next to impossible. Marion Correctional Institution is a minimum to medium security prison of more than 2,500 prisoners, primarily made up of dormitories, where dozens of prisoners are crowded into each dorm.
Kelli Gulick, whose son Nico-Las Phanthavong, 27, is an inmate at Marion Correctional, told the Columbus Dispatch recently that they were terrified and that he sleeps in a dorm with more than 100 other inmates sleeping on bunk beds that are about three feet apart.
Correctional officers have instructed prisoners in dorms to sleep so that their heads are closest to the feet of the prisoner nearest them to help check the potential spread of the virus.
Places like prisons, nursing homes and other congregate living facilities are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because people live so close together, said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.
"That's why it's so important that we are not spreading this disease, we're not spreading it to the workers in these settings," she said.
DeWine has put forward the names of 205 nonviolent Ohio prison inmates who meet narrow criteria for possible release as part of an effort to curb the prison population amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The number represents 0.42% of the prison system's nearly 49,000 inmates.
Civil rights advocates and criminal defense attorneys have called on DeWine to broaden the criteria for release to lessen the chances of a coronavirus outbreak sweeping through overcrowded prison populations and corrections employees.
Five prisons — Dayton, Madison, Marion, Pickaway and Toledo correctional institutions, as well as the Correctional Reception Center in Orient and the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus — were under quarantine as of Wednesday because of positive coronavirus tests for inmates and/or correction employees.
Three inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Elkton, the only federal prison in Ohio, have died and more have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday he was sending the Ohio National Guard to help battle the coronavirus outbreak at the prison, where he said dozens more have symptoms, some very serious.
Elkton, a low-security federal prison about 30 miles east of Canton, houses 2,040 inmates in the main prison and another 417 inmates at a satellite facility.
©2020 The Repository, Canton, Ohio