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National Guard sent to help Elkton prison

LISBON — While Columbiana County’s COVID-19 total case numbers increased by 11 to a total of 53, many of the new local cases are from the federal prison in Elkton, prompting Gov. Mike DeWine to send in the Ohio National Guard to help.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson said 23 prisoners and two staff members have been confirmed with coronavirus at the FCI-Elkton prison. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) states eight inmates and one guard were confirmed with coronavirus at the prison as of Monday evening.

Joseph Mayle, president of the union representing 280 of the 320 employees at the low-security 2,450-bed security prison, said 29 inmates are currently hospitalized at area hospitals either with COVID-19 or symptoms and nine of them are on ventilators. Mayle also said the number of staff members testing positive is actually three.

No matter whose numbers are correct, family members have been contacting politicians and the news media expressing concerns for their loved ones incarcerated at the prison.

Since learning about the problem, Johnson said he has been in contact with the federal Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Justice, DeWine and his team as well as the warden at the prison, officials with the Ohio National Guard and at the local hospitals where patients are being treated.

DeWine also said starting on Friday and over the weekend, he started receiving calls about what is happening at the prison in Elkton, the only federal prison in the state. DeWine said after talking to those at the prison, the Ohio National Guard’s state surgeon general’s office of Major Gen. John C. Harris Jr., DeWine said he believes there is “no doubt this prison needs help.”

“General Harris tells me that Elkton’s medical staffing right now is at only 50 percent of what it should be,” DeWine said, “and for every federal inmate in the hospital they need two guards standing watch and some of these prisoners are now out in the community at these hospitals.”

DeWine announced an Ohio National Guard advance team was already at the Elkton prison on Monday and there will be 26 Ohio National Guard service people sent to help in the Elkton infirmary, who will not be armed and will not be providing security. Instead they are medical personnel there to assist those suffering from coronavirus and those with COVID-19 symptoms. In the event of a surge, the Guard will be helping to treat some, prepare other prisoners for transport and will be taking with them ambulances to transport those needing hospital medical care.

“We’ve got to protect the staff and inmates at Elkton from the COVID-19 outbreak, and right now that facility is like a petri dish, a breeding ground for the virus,” Johnson said. “Staff members are coming home to their families and communities after their shifts, and inmates are in close proximity to each other with limited means to isolate or quarantine.”

In addition to the Ohio National Guard, Johnson said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be helping at the Elkton facility. Additionally, Johnson said he is concerned about the possibility of the local hospitals running the risk of being overwhelmed, pointing out they need to be ready in case of a sudden outbreak in the local community. He called what is happening at Elkton something he is closely monitoring and an “all hands on deck” situation.

“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.

State Medical Director Dr. Amy Acton said her office also has been talking to those health professionals in Columbiana County about the Elkton prison situation, including at both Salem Regional Medical Center and East Liverpool City Hospital. Acton said she believes they are doing a fantastic job, but the state also brought in some other regional help for the local hospitals here.

“We brought in SUMA, Mercy, the Cleveland Clinic and Trinity and all of those are working collectively to make sure we balance patients so no one hospital is overwhelmed when there is an outbreak in any setting in Ohio,” Acton said. “That is fantastic. That’s exactly what we want to see to make sure we are balancing the stress on our health care system, so I’m very, very proud and optimistic about how we are responding.”

The Ohio National Guard will remain at FCI-Elkton for a limited time of seven to 10 days, until additional federal assistance can arrive, DeWine said. He added that while Elkton is a federal prison, the people who work there are primarily Ohioans and they go home to their families, who live in the area. When an inmate gets sick, they go to the local hospitals.

“We are all in this together and providing state help for this prison is the right thing to do,” DeWine said.

Due to the surge of positive cases in a few of their prisons and the directive of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the federal Bureau of Prisons announced it has begun reviewing all the inmates for possible home confinement. They are looking for those with a COVID-19 risk factor starting immediately with those at the three prisons with the highest numbers, which includes FCI-Elkton.

DeWine said because Elkton is a federal facility, he wants those family members of inmates calling his office about this to understand he has no authority to do something to get the prisoners there released.

Both Johnson and DeWine said they are talking to others to make sure there are no additional inmates coming into the Elkton prison at this time.

Mayle said 39 inmates have already been identified as possible candidates for home confinement per Barr’s directive. Whoever meets the criteria would be placed in quarantine for 14 days and, if showing no symptoms after that period, would be sent home. Additionally, another 21 inmates have been identified as meeting the criteria for release to a halfway house or full release from the remainder of their sentence.

As of Monday, 80 inmates are in isolation and another 16 new arrivals remain in quarantine as a precaution.

Mayle also addressed a CBS News story based on a contraband cellphone video taken by an inmate at the prison. The inmate, who can be shown wearing a mask, said people were “dying left and right” in the prison. “They’re literally leaving us here to die,” he said.

Mayle said everything in the video was false, starting with the allegation inmates had died at the prison. “No one has died in here. Every inmate that has passed away was at a hospital,” he said,

The inmate referred to a tent that had been set up on the outside basketball court, claiming it had been set up as morgue. Mayle said the tent was erected as an emergency isolation facility but the administration decided to use the visitation area. The tent remains in place, and Mayle said the Ohio National Guard medical unit arriving to assist at the prison may consider turning it into a makeshift hospital.

The federal prison is not the only place of concern across Ohio. There are five inmates each who have reportedly tested positive at the state’s Marion Correctional Facility and the Pickaway Correction Institution, according to DeWine. He also spoke on Monday of guards at the Marion facility as well. DeWine said his office is looking at ways to release some non-violent offenders at state facilities. He emphasized it is important to balance the safety of the inmates and prison staff with the safety of the public.

Statewide, the coronavirus numbers rose to 4,450 confirmed cases and death totals increased by 23 people to 142. Acton reported there have been 48,000 tests run across the state. She also reported more than 300 people are known to have recovered by some of the numbers of people discharged from hospitals, although she admits those released are incomplete figures. Those hospitalized due to the coronavirus total 1,214 with 371 admitted to the ICU, although the numbers of cases and hospitalizations are accumulative and do not include removing from the numbers those who have recovered or died from the disease.

The Columbiana County numbers rose by 11 cases to 53. Of those, 33 cases are hospitalized, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Five people have died, which would include the three federal inmates — Frank McCoy, Margarito Garcia-Fragoso and Woodrow Taylor. Two had confirmed cases before they died. Taylor’s test now also confirms he died of COVID-19.

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Tom Giambroni contributed to this story.

djohnson@mojonews.com

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