Workers at Ohio’s Correctional Institutions Raise Concerns About COVID-19 Exposure

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Press Contact: Anthony Caldwell, acaldwell@seiu1199.org, 877-419-7348.

Union members at state prisons say more needs to be done to protect the health of staff, people in prison.

COLUMBUS, OHIO – Psychologist, psychiatrist, registered nurses, behavioral health providers, social workers, case managers, and other health and service providers who work within the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) facilities across Ohio are extremely concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19 and raising the curve by exposing their families and others they encounter in the daily lives after ODRC administrators recently made some questionable decisions relating to people incarcerated with the virus.

People in prison who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are symptomatic are being isolated to areas with other people who are incarcerated which have also tested positive, while asymptomatic, COVID-positive individuals are not being isolated and continue to be housed, quarantined in their cells, with others who have not tested positive for the virus, which staff fear could lead to further spread within the institutions.

Health professionals and staff within the institutions equally concerned for their health and safety as they are required to work in units that have been quarantined from the rest of the prison population without adequate protection, risking the health of their families and communities, when they go home after their shift.

“The workers within our state institutions are deeply concerned about contracting the virus and the unfair risk that forces on them, their families, and their communities,” said Josh Norris, Executive Vice President for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199. “It would appear as though ODRC administrators are hoping to develop herd immunity within the prisons as they freely deliver care, meals, commissary, and other services without regard to whether a person who is in prison has been infected with COVID-19 or not. This puts the health of all Ohioans, but especially the staff inside the institutions, at greater risk for contracting and spreading the virus.”

Cross-contamination is not the only risk for care and service providers within state prison, as ODRC administrators are rationing personal protective equipment (PPE) as well. Most staff are only provided a thin, cloth or surgical-style mask and gloves, citing directives provided by the Ohio Department of Health. The more effective N95 masks are issued on an as-needed basis with approval from ODRC administrators.

“Our Union members go to work every day inside our state’s prisons to provide the necessary care and services incarcerated individuals need to be successfully rehabilitated,” continued Norris. “These individuals are here to serve a sentence, but that shouldn’t be a death sentence for them or the ODRC staff because proper precautions were not taken to protect them from COVID-19.”

SEIU District 1199 leaders and Union members are calling on Governor DeWine and the directors of the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to reevaluate their policies as it relates to COVID-19, the delivery of care and services, and the availability and use of effective PPE like N95 masks.

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