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COVID-19 Is Sweeping Through Ohio Prisons

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The highest number of COVID-19 cases tied to one location in the U.S. is a state prison in central Ohio. Eighty percent of inmates there have tested positive for the virus. Paige Pfleger of member station WOSU reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: The Marion Correctional Institution is a minimum and medium-security facility between Columbus and Cleveland. These days, when prisoners call from inside, it often sounds like this.

ANDRE STORES: (Coughing) Excuse me.

PFLEGER: Mass testing at Marion revealed more than 2,000 of the 2,500 prisoners contracted COVID-19. Andre Stores has been incarcerated since 1995 for complicity to aggravated robbery and other charges. He says it's been days since he and other inmates were tested. And they still don't know their results. That gives the virus more time to spread.

STORES: Nobody's saying nothing. Like, we just - they just leaving us up here. It's like they're leaving us basically to die. I didn't come to prison to die.

PFLEGER: Prison officials declined to comment on when inmates would get their test results. There's been a lot of activity inside the prison since testing began. Some men were relocated from their dorms to the gymnasium. But inmate Dennis Salerno, who is serving life for aggravated murder, says confusion about who has coronavirus and who does not is making matters much worse.

DENNIS SALERNO: There were a few guys that were moved out and then moved back because they were told that, well, you're not on our list. So even with whatever it is that they do know, they've already crossed contaminated people.

PFLEGER: No other state has yet reported as many cases of COVID-19 behind bars as Ohio. That's in large part because Ohio leads the country in prison testing. Annette Chambers-Smith runs the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. She says the prisons resorted to mass testing early.

ANNETTE CHAMBERS-SMITH: We felt like we were fighting a ghost.

PFLEGER: She estimates they've run at least 5,000 tests. States like Texas, California and Florida have run far fewer even though their inmate populations are significantly bigger.

CHAMBERS-SMITH: Now, there are other states that I think are considering doing it at this point. We're definitely the first one to do it, so that's why the numbers jump out at you.

PFLEGER: One of many reasons the coronavirus has been so hard to contain in Ohio's prisons is because they are significantly overcrowded, sitting now at about 130% capacity. Some states are talking about releasing thousands of inmates to help with social distancing behind bars. So far, Ohio's governor recommended the release of about 300 of the 49,000 inmates in Ohio. And most of those are either pregnant or senior citizens. Gary Daniels of the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union says more inmates need to be released.

GARY DANIELS: You need to get your prison facility or at least each of those individual facilities down to the point where they are able to single bunk or single cell. What that number would be in Ohio, I'm not sure, but you might very well be talking about decarcerating our prison population by half.

PFLEGER: Inmates argue that the near total spread of the virus inside the Marion prison is proof that officials didn't do enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19. And now that inmates are sick, they complain not enough is being done to treat them. Cory Dodrill, who is serving time for rape, says several older men who became ill didn't get medical attention for days.

CORY DODRILL: They didn't get any help until either they were hyperventilating, struggling to breathe or falling out of their rack screaming for help.

PFLEGER: So far, 12 Ohio inmates have died from the coronavirus. And more than 3,700 have tested positive. But those results only account for a few of the state's 28 prison facilities. Tens of thousands of Ohio inmates haven't been tested yet. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.