Ohio governor deploys National Guard to help federal prison with COVID-19
Officials fear that an outbreak of the swift-spreading and contagious disease could overwhelm prison staff and local hospitals in the mostly rural area
By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday announced that he authorized the Ohio National Guard to help federal officials handle an outbreak of the coronavirus in a federal prison in Elkton that has left three inmates dead.
The state is will send up to 26 medically trained guard members, as well as equipment including ambulances, to the Columbiana County facility on Tuesday for a mission that will last seven to 10 days, DeWine said at his Monday briefing from the Ohio Statehouse.
The members will be unarmed and will not provide any security. The mission will continue until the federal government can send help, DeWine said.
“This is a medical mission, only,” DeWine stressed during his daily pandemic briefing.
DeWine also called on the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to stop sending new inmates to the facility until the outbreak is under control.
“When an outbreak inside the prison takes place, it’s certainly not the time to introduce new inmates to that population,” DeWine said.
Sen. Rob Portman tweeted on Monday that the Federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed not to send prisoners to the facility.
A spokeswoman for the prisons bureau said in a statement that the Army Corp of Engineers is also sending medical personnel to Elkton to work with the guard members to provide lab testing, portable x-rays and in-patient care to inmates at the prison. The goal is to reduce the number of inmates being transferred to local hospitals to preserve bed space.
“Guardsmen and women are deploying solely to assist with medical care at the prison,” Sue Allison said in a statement. “The BOP very much appreciates the assistance of and coordination with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Ohio National Guard in providing this additional medical support to FCI Elkton.”
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman’s declined to comment on Monday afternoon.
The move comes after the federal prisons bureau on Saturday reported that Frank McCoy, 76, was the third inmate to die of suspected coronavirus-related illness in as many days at the prison. Woodrow Taylor, 53, and Margarito Garcia-Fragoso, 65, died Thursday.
The facility, about 100 miles east of Cleveland, includes a low-security prison and a satellite prison that combined can house 2,469 inmates.
Officials fear that an outbreak of the swift-spreading and contagious disease could overwhelm prison staff and local hospitals in the mostly rural area.
U.S Rep. Bill Johnson, whose district includes the facility, said in a statement Monday that 23 inmates housed at Elkton and two staff members have tested positive for the disease. Several inmates had been transferred to local hospitals for treatment, Johnson said.
Johnson said the facility is “like a petri dish, a breeding ground for the virus" and that he is monitoring the situation daily.
“We have a moral responsibility to protect the health and safety of both staff and inmates at the Elkton facility and that’s exactly what we are going to do,” Johnson said in his statement.
DeWine said he asked the guard’s surgeon general and officials from the health department to go to the prison after he began receiving phone calls from local officials worried about the conditions inside the prison.
Maj. Gen. John Harris, Ohio’s adjutant general, reported that Elkton is operating with half the medical personnel it should be, DeWine said. The prison also has to send two guards to monitor each inmate who is transferred to a hospital outside of the prison.
“There is no doubt that this prison needs help,” DeWine said.
The guard sent an advance team to the prison on Monday, DeWine said. The federal government on Monday also formally asked for the state’s assistance.
The members will focus on treating inmates who show symptoms of the virus and those who are sick with other illnesses, and help the infirmary get those with severe symptoms to area hospitals, DeWine said. If the virus continues to spread, the members will help officials transport inmates to the hospital.
DeWine also said that he had received calls from family members of inmates at the facility asking him to order the release of prisoners there. DeWine said he has no authority to do so because the federal government runs that facility.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Friday ordered prison officials to speed up their efforts to place some inmates on home confinement. The goal is to remove many older inmates, along with those with preexisting conditions that may make them susceptible to illnesses associated with the virus, from behind bars.
His memo specifically mentioned focusing efforts on Elkton, as well as prisons in Louisiana and Connecticut.
Among the high-profile inmates in custody at the facility is former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who is serving a 28-year sentence for corruption-related crimes.
Prison officials released Amish Bishop Sam Mullet from a halfway house to his home in late March to finish serving the rest of his sentence due to the virus.
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