| Marion Star
During the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a Marion prison became one of the nation’s largest hotspots for COVID-19.
Within weeks of reporting its first case, The New York Times rated Marion Correctional Institution as the largest source of virus infections in the country, while Johns Hopkins University ranked Marion County as second in the nation for infections per 100,000 people.
The COVID-19 outbreak at the prison was voted the No. 1 story of 2020 by Star readers and staff.
The outbreak began in late March when all of the more than 2,500 inmates at Marion Correctional Institution were placed under quarantine after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said at the time that the prison was monitoring every MCI inmate for symptoms daily and taking their temperatures.
The prison, which opened in 1954, was only designed to hold 1,655 prisoners and now is at more than 150% capacity, according to an ODRC report on its capital needs.
Corredon Rogers, a Marion pastor who worked at MCI for 25 years, told the Star social distancing would be impossible at MCI.
COVID cases soon spread to other parts of the population, with an inmate becoming the first state prisoner to test positive for the coronavirus in April. Then, MCI corrections officer John Dawson, 55, of Mansfield, died after he tested positive for COVID-19. He was the second MCI corrections officer to test positive for the virus.
As coronavirus cases neared the 1,000 mark in Marion County, members of the National Guard were called to help MCI. At least 50 guard members assisted with “mission critical functions” at the prison. The State Highway Patrol also helped guard the prison’s perimeter.
More: Lykins: A walk in faith with incarcerated men during COVID-19
More: Marion Medical Campus vaccinates frontline workers for COVID-19
Epicenter of the coronavirus
By mid-April, MCI had overtaken other prisons in the state for most prisoners with confirmed cases of COVID-19, vaulting Marion County into the top Ohio counties for coronavirus cases.
At the time, the prison had 365 prisoners and at least 99 staff with confirmed COVID-19.
During Easter weekend, the state began testing all inmates at Marion Correctional Institution, at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus and Pickaway Correctional Institution, said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
But by the end of the month, at least 80% of the prison was infected and four prisoners had died.
Meanwhile, the inmates at MCI felt helpless and unprotected due to the lack of social distancing.
“I didn’t get sentenced to a death sentence,” LaNair Parker, an inmate at MCI, told the Star. “People in here are scared.”
Parker, who was about halfway through his five-year prison sentence for a burglary conviction at the time, lived in a dorm of about 90 people, where he said their bunks were about three feet away from each other.
“As far as social distancing, it’s hard to do when we’re so close together. A guy can cough three racks down, and I can literally see this guy’s pupils, that’s how close I am,” he said. “We’re all trapped in one area. Once it gets into the air, it’s just airborne so now it’s going to affect the whole dorm. It’s scary.”
Gov. Mike DeWine said during an April news conference it was just a matter of time before COVID-19 was introduced to the prisons. Still, he said the state was doing “everything we can” to confront the outbreaks at Marion Correctional Institution and other state prisons.
But a Marion correctional officer had described the outbreak there as out of control and prisoners said not everyone with symptoms of the disease was isolated or separated from prisoners without symptoms.
Julie Peterson, whose son is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution, said her son told her there were people with fevers in his dorm who were not being removed from the dorm or isolated.
Peterson said that her son, who at that time had served about 15 months of his three-year prison term for a drug trafficking offense, had underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure and heart disease, and that she is worried for his safety.
“It scares me to death that he’s going to get sick and I wouldn’t even know,” she said.
MCI employees also had concerns, as staff at the prison who had been sent home after testing positive for coronavirus were being forced back to work as soon as three days after being symptom free. In addition, correctional staff members were often working double shifts, said Sally Meckling, spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
Ohioans protest for inmates
After hearing about the condition inmates were living in, Ohioans from across the state protested outside the Marion Correctional Institution at the end of April, carrying signs that said, “inmates have rights” and “not a death sentence.”
Hailing from Cleveland, Columbus, Wilmington, Xenia and elsewhere, they called on officials to do more to protect the rights and lives of incarcerated people, who are among the most at-risk for infection with the novel coronavirus, which can cause severe respiratory illness or death.
Many of the protesters saw the virus’ hold on the prison as tantamount to a death sentence for a segment of the prison population.
“If you have any type of heart, … if you have any type of passion for your fellow man, you need to speak up and you need to stand up because this is not right,” said David Okpara, of Cleveland, who was previously incarcerated at the Marion prison. “This is inhumane.”
Outbreak calms down
By June, the outbreak at MCI began to slow down as cases decreased.
“I feel like our big outbreaks (at prisons located in Marion County) have played themselves out,” Health Commissioner Traci Kinsler of Marion Public Health previously told the Star. “We’re not seeing new cases come in from the outbreaks. The cases we’re seeing now aren’t related to any particular outbreak.”
As of Dec. 29, there is only one inmate case and 4 staff cases at MCI, according to the ODRC website. In addition, there are six inmates in quarantine.