Video: Inmate uses smuggled cellphone to beg for help on Facebook Live
"They literally leaving us in here to die," said Aaron Campbell, an inmate at an Ohio federal prison where three people have died from COVID-19
By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND — A video recorded inside a federal prison in Eastern Ohio where a coronavirus outbreak killed three inmates and infected dozens of others shows inmates lying on beds just feet apart coughing and wheezing.
The inmate, whose identity cleveland.com has been unable to confirm, said he recorded the video on a smuggled cellphone. He spoke for nearly half an hour through a mask about conditions inside the Federal Correction Institution in Elkton, where Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday authorized the Ohio National Guard to send emergency medical assistance to deal with the outbreak.
“They literally leaving us in here to die,” the inmate said.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said Tuesday that the video was “under investigation."
“We can confirm that after identifying the inmates in the video, none of them were symptomatic of COVID-19,” spokeswoman Sue Allison said in a Tuesday email to cleveland.com.
The video, which was viewed hundreds of thousands of times after it was posted to several social media outlets over the weekend, offers the public a rare glimpse to conditions inside the federal facility in Columbiana County, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland, where the virus has quickly spread in the last week.
At least 25 Elkton inmates, including the three who died, have tested positive for the virus, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson said in a statement. Several inmates have been transferred to local hospitals in the Mahoning Valley area. Two security guards must escort each prisoner, DeWine said on Monday. The result has left prison short-staffed, and hospitals fearing an influx of patients.
Posted by Aaron Campbell on Friday, April 3, 2020
Between the guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there will be 32 medical staff at the prison to help set up testing labs and treat prisoners at the facility who fall ill with mild COVID-19 symptoms or other illnesses, and triage patients with serious symptoms to be transferred to hospitals.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman Monday night tweeted that the prisons bureau had agreed not to send any inmates to Elkton amid the outbreak of the disease.
As DeWine and Public Health Director Amy Acton have ordered Ohioans to stay at home, closed non-essential businesses where crowds gathered like bars, restaurants and concert venues and urged people to practice social distancing, state and federal penitentiaries that hold thousands of offenders are exempted from those orders.
The inmates are often held in dormitory-style rooms, with multiple bunk beds, or in two-person cells that make constantly maintaining six feet away from other people impossible.
The Elkton inmate in the video showed the bunk above his bed where another inmate sleeps, and two inmates lying in beds under the covers just a few feet away. One was wheezing, and the other was coughing. Both were curled beneath the covers.
“You all m-----------s can social distance. We can’t social distance,” he said.
The man said in the video that he had less than one year of prison time left on a drug sentence. He said he asked to be placed on home confinement to get out of the prison, and his request was denied.
He feared catching the virus, and said in the video that he was losing his taste and smell, which research has suggested could be early symptoms of the virus.
“People shouldn’t have to die like this," he said.
Trey Fennell, a 48-year-old MRI technician in suburban Washington D.C., told cleveland.com Tuesday that one of the men shown in the video beneath the blankets is his brother, 43-year-old Troy Davis.
Davis has diabetes, and has emailed his older brother every day since he entered the prison in 2019 on a 12-year sentence for drug conspiracy charges out of Elyria, Fennell said. Fennell grew worried when Davis didn’t email him on Saturday. Then he saw the video and recognized his brother, coughing beneath a blanket.
Fennell said he and his family have been trying to get answers from the prison about his brother’s condition, but have received no response. Fennell said if he doesn’t have an answer by Saturday, he is considering driving to Elkton, knowing the prison is under quarantine, just to see if he can get an answer in person.
“I just want to hear from my brother, and see if he’s OK,” Fennell said. “Is he still living? I need to know.”
The situation in Elkton, Ohio’s only federal lock-up, shows why officials are so fearful of a spread inside correctional facilities. The virus can lay dormant in someone for up to 48 hours without showing any symptoms, leaving guards and other prison staff who come and go from the facilities each day at risk of carrying the virus into the jail, or back into the communities where they live.
Ten inmates as of Monday had tested positive for the virus in two separate state-run prisons -- five each at the Marion Correctional Institution and Pickaway Correctional Institution. Each house over 2,000 inmates, and widespread outbreaks of the virus could overwhelm hospitals in those areas. The state prisons combined have nearly 49,000 inmates and 12,000 staff members, according to the state.
Attorneys at two Cleveland-area law firms have filed emergency reprieve requests asking DeWine to grant temporary releases to thousands of inmates across the state who because of their age or health problems are especially susceptible to serious illness or death if they contract the virus.
DeWine, who as the state’s Attorney General from 2011-2019 was responsible for prosecuting criminals around the state, has drawn a red line around granting early release to inmates convicted of violent crimes or domestic abuse.
DeWine announced Monday that he had identified about 160 prisoners for potential early release, which is about 0.2 percent of the total number of inmates housed in the state’s prisons.
Officials in Cuyahoga County in a two-week span decreased the population of the county jail from more than 1,900 inmates to just over 1,000 in an effort to stave off. Six inmates tested positive for the virus on Friday, and another three tested positive on Monday. Two more inmates have refused tests but are suspected to have contracted the virus, the county said, bringing the total of confirmed and suspected cases to 11.
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