HAMILTON, Ohio (FOX19) - Jails in two local counties - Butler and Clermont - are among five in Ohio suspended from transferring inmates to state prisons because multiple have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, state officials confirmed Thursday.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s spokesman, Dan Tierney, says the best practice is for all county inmates to be tested and quarantined 14 days before they are transferred from the county jail to the prison system.
It’s all about trying to prevent the deadly coronavirus from spreading at prisons, he said, and to protect as many inmates and workers as possible.
Ohio is undergoing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases with no vaccine currently in use, though the first rounds are expected in Ohio next month.
The state also ranks third in the country with the most deaths in prison during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Marshall Project, a New York City non-profit agency that analyzes the nation’s criminal justice system. Florida leads with 187 and Texas has 168.
Ohio ranks fourth in the country in the rate of deaths, with 25 per every 10,000 inmates.
“It’s a deadly disease that spreads quickly in congregate situations. We’ve lost several inmates and workers. We have an obligation at the state level to do what we can to protect the lives of (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation) employees and those in DRC custody,” Tierney said.
In Butler County’s case, Tierney said, “multiple” prisoners have tested positive since late October.
“The suspension will be lifted when proper protocols are put into place to protect the inmates during the transfer process and this includes proper testing and an appropriate quarantine protocol.”
The other three county jails suspended from transferring inmates to state prisons are Franklin, Montgomery and Ross, according to Tierney and JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.
The issue came to light Thursday when Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones tweeted to promote his upcoming interview on FOX News Saturday morning.
“I’ll be talking about what Governor DeWine is doing to County jails..you’ll be shocked....”
When we contacted Jones to see what his issue is with the governor and county jails, he said he’s upset 28 prisoners at his jail were recently convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to prison are staying put for the foreseeable future because of the suspension.
Jones said he’s concerned the list will continue to grow, impacting public safety and emboldening criminals.
“We got prisoners coming in the front door and none going out. When prisoners come in, prisoners gotta go out to the state prison system,” Jones said.
“If that stops, we just keep filling up and what the state prison system is telling us is to get the judges to release people and don’t sentence people to the county jail or state prison system. They will be released and put on the street.
“The state prison system and the governor’s office won’t cooperate with us and other jails. There’s 88 other county jails. Just because COVID is here, it doesn’t mean crime stops or takes a holiday or goes into to a quarantine or has a curfew.
“The public needs to be aware of this. Their safety could depend on it. If criminals don’t go to jail and they know there is no jail space or prisoners being moved, they stay on the street and continue to commit crime. And they think they can get away with crime. Delayed punishment is like no punishment at all.”
HIs jail is housing 901 inmates right now, including eight who have COVID-19.
He was not aware how many of those, if any, were waiting for a state prison transfer.
Jones said all inmates coming into his jail are automatically quarantined in a group for 14 days, and their temperatures also are taken when the first arrive.
If they exhibit any covid-19-like symptoms, they are monitored and separated from the other prisoners.
Inmates who are eligible for state prison transfer and who have not tested positive for COVID are housed in a separate wing, Jones said, but they are not quarantined because he does not have the room and staffing.
He does not test incoming inmates “because we’d have to test them everyday. Some of the are in jail for like six months, eight months. It doesn’t make any sense to test everybody every single day.
“When they go to the prison system, we implemented a policy recently so they are tested because that’s what the state requires. Now they want all prisoners who are being transferred to be quarantined. We don’t have the room for it and they keep changing the rules. And they don’t communicate with us. They just keep dictating to us what we have to do. The state prison system is always full of COVID.”
Jones says they’ve never knowingly transferred a prisoner with COVID. He also is questioning the accuracy of the state’s positive tests, noting that Gov. DeWine himself recently tested positive initially only to have a second test rule it out.
“They said we had four prisoners test positive and we told the we wanted another test because there’s always false positives and they refused,” he said.
This is the latest criticisms Jones has had with health orders from Gov. DeWine’s administration amid the pandemic.
Jones said he’s tried to compromise with both prison leaders and a representative from Gov. DeWine’s office, to no avail.
He said he has asked two Butler County lawmakers, Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township, and State Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester, to intervene so prisoner transfers can resume.
The spokeswoman for the state prison system said all inmates they receive from county jails are routinely tested as part of the reception process.
“Testing results serve as a management tool for placement. To account for the 14-day incubation period of the virus inmates will be tested again on day 15 at reception. DRC will continue to cohort reception intake into discrete groups and not transfer to other facilities for 22 days. This would also allow DRC to continue with jail reception in a sustainable fashion designed to prevent or mitigate transmission being introduced at intake.”
But Jones is not the only frustrated sheriff out there.
Officials with the Clermont County Sheriff’s Office say almost a month ago, the state prison system notified them two inmates who recently transferred to state prisons from the jail tested positive once they arrived.
“The delay in telling us was substantial, which I was not happy about,” Sheriff Steve Leahy responded Thursday.
Clermont County Chief Deputy Chris Stratton reports they have 14 inmates ready to ship to state prisons and they are waiting for transfer paperwork for an additional eight inmates who have been sentenced.
“We have been working to keep staff and inmates safe,” Sheriff Leahy said. “Part of that is by reducing population. By not accepting those who have been sentenced keeps our population high, which increases risk.”
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