Keeping Virus Out of Prisons

More than half the COVID-19 cases in Belmont County, as of Tuesday afternoon, were at the state prison near St. Clairsville. Two of the county’s eight virus-related deaths had occurred there.

Despite decisive action including institution-wide quarantines taken by state officials, Ohio may be the hardest-hit state in the nation regarding COVID-19 in penal institutions. As of Tuesday, 4,365 people at state corrections and rehabilitation facilities — including 593 staff members — had tested positive for the coronavirus.

More than 2,400 prisoners at the Belmont Correctional Institution remained under quarantine Tuesday. A hundred inmates and 73 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 — out of a total of 341 cases throughout the county.

As we reported, Buckeye State corrections officials have taken a number of preventive steps in corrections facilities, including the local one. They range from stepped-up sanitation to using technology in an effort to keep inmates and staff members separated.

The latter strategy has had only limited success, as indicated by the Belmont Correctional Institution numbers — 71 staff members and 100 prisoners infected.

By the time the deadly efficiency of COVID-19 became clear, it was too late for corrections institutions to do much other than establish massive quarantines. Still, some staff members have carried the virus out into their communities — and the reverse, with COVID-19 taken into inmate populations, occurred, too.

Once corrections and public health officials have time to look closely at what happened, it is important that they learn what, if anything, they could have done differently to avoid the massive outbreak in Ohio prisons. As of May 13, 23 states had reported fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases each in their prison systems. Nine had not experienced a single infection, according to The Marshall Project, a New York-based program focusing on criminal justice.

Learning how corrections officials in many states dodged the proverbial bullet is important — because there will be another communicable disease outbreak. Finding better ways to keep it out of jails and prisons is important not just to inmates but, clearly, to surrounding communities.


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