Tuesday Recap: Steps Being Taken to Fix Prison Problem

COLUMBUS (News Talk 1480 WHBC) – Once again, Governor Mike DeWine along with other state leaders and health officials spoke in Columbus this afternoon, delivering updates on COVID-19 in Ohio. Here is a layout of everything that was discussed.

Update on Cases

The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) reports that the state now has 4,782 confirmed cases of COVID-19. 167 have now resulted in death. 1,354 Ohioans have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus; 417 have been admitted into the intensive care unit. The state has tested more than 50,000 people for COVID-19.

Stark County now has 110 confirmed cases. 22 of those cases have resulted in a hospitalization. Seven people have died from COVID-19 in Stark County.

SNAP Benefits Extended

Ohioans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will soon receive additional support to help them during the pandemic.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) announced today that those who did not already receive the maximum month allotment for their household size in March will be issued an additional payment beginning this week.

All SNAP-eligible households will soon be able to pick up a pre-packaged box of food at their local foodbank. Ohio obtained federal approval to waive administrative verification normally required at food banks, to streamline the process and limit person-to-person contact.

Drinks to Go!

Today, the Ohio Liquor Control Commission passed an emergency rule to allow establishments with an existing on-premises liquor permit to sell and deliver alcohol, including high-proof liquor in limited quantity, for off-premises consumption.

Under the rule, patrons can purchase two, prepackaged drinks per meal. All drinks must be closed and remain closed during transport as per open container law.

Prisoners to be Released

Governor DeWine says prisons pose a unique issue in this pandemic.

“Social distancing in the general population is helping us flatten the curve,” DeWine said “But for prison inmates and staff, social distancing becomes much more challenging.”

DeWine says the state must do all it can to protect prison staff.

“They can’t work from home,” said DeWine. “We need them, we appreciate them, and we must give them the safest work environment we can. We also must protect inmates. And we must protect the public from those who may cause them harm.”

Recently, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction intake went down by around 20%. That has started to reduce the state’s population in the prisons. Governor DeWine thanked those at the local level who have been involved in that.

Last week the state asked judges to consider the early release of 38 select offenders 23 pregnant or post-partum women and 15 inmates ages 60 and up who are already approaching release within 120 days. Since then, the DeWine administration has continued to carefully analyze our prison population.

“Finding inmates to release from prisons to create more room for social distancing isn’t easy,” said DeWine. “We have around 49,000 people in our prisons today, and they’re there for a reason.”

The state has no intention of releasing the murderers, the sexual predators back into society.

“To protect the public, we must be smart and targeted about who we recommend for release.”

In Ohio law, there is a longstanding statute (ORC 2967.18) that allows the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to alert the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee of an overcrowding emergency and recommend that certain inmates be released to make more room.

Governor DeWine says the state is in an emergency that makes the situation more urgent, thus action is needed.

“We are in unprecedented times,” said DeWine. “Which is why I’m announcing today that we are moving forward with this process and are notifying the CIIC of overcrowding in our prisons.”

To help relieve this situation, the state believes that there are specific inmates who could qualify for release who are already scheduled for release within the next 90 days.

The state is not asking that everyone who is scheduled to be released within 90 days be released early. DeWine says his administration narrowed down the list by first looking at those who are set to be released within 90 days and then eliminated those convicted of serious charges such as:

  • sex offenses
  • homicide-related offenses
  • kidnapping
  • abduction
  • ethnic intimidation
  • making terroristic threats
  • domestic violence.

The state also screened out those who:

  • Have been denied judicial release in the past
  • Have prior incarcerations in Ohio
  • Are inter-state offenders
  • Have warrants or detainers
  • Those who have serious prison rule violations in the last five years

That left the state with 141 inmates who qualify for emergency release under Ohio’s Overcrowding Emergency statute and have a release date on or before July 13, 2020.

These inmates are all in our minimum-security prisons. Prisoners in these facilities live in “open bays” with 80 to 300 people in a large open room. They sleep in bunks with three feet or less between them. Because of this set-up there is potential for the fast spread of COVID-19.

There is another, much smaller, group of inmates who we believe should also be considered for release. These are inmates who are 60 years or older and have 1 or more chronic health condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

DeWine’s administration also looked for those who’ve served more than 50% of their sentence and then screened with similar criteria that was used for the first group that was mentioned. In the end, Ohio was left with 26 inmates statewide. The Governor says he is taking steps to get this small group out early as well.

“As I explained yesterday, under the normal procedure I cannot quickly grant a commutation,” said DeWine. “We must give prosecutors, judges, and victims notice of at least 60 days and that’s after all the appropriate paperwork has been filed.”

Because of these individuals’ medical vulnerability, the fact that some would not qualify for judicial release and the need to consider these cases quickly, Governor DeWine is taking the following action.

“We are asking judges and prosecutors associated with these cases to waive the 60 days notice so that they can take these cases directly to the parole board. The parole board is prepared to meet start meeting on Friday to address these matters.”

In these 26 cases, it is a statutory requirement that the parole board to consider and make a recommendation on each of these cases. In those cases where there are specific victims, those victims will receive notice and have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

After the parole board makes a recommendation on these 26 cases, DeWine says he will act quickly to make his decision in respect to each case.

Small Business Relief

Today Lt. Governor Jon Husted announced the creation of the Office of Small Business Relief to identify ways to provide support to Ohio’s small businesses. This office will be housed within the Ohio Development Services Agency.

You can find more information on that right here. If you still have questions, there is an email address and telephone number there that you can call for additional assistance.

Modeling and Projecting an Outcome

Dr. Amy Acton with the ODH spoke about modeling this afternoon, providing insight on how health officials are predicting when the big surge will come.

“There is a lot being said about modeling  but it is not a science that predicts the outcome,” said Acton. “Our actions predict the outcome. Modeling is like a weather forecast even forecasts use many models.”

Acton says health officials look at the worst-case scenarios and other modeling showing better outcomes. This all points the state in a general direction of decision making, maybe when the peak will be. Maybe when Ohio will need more ventilators.

“It’s important to think in worst-case scenarios so that we can aim well and work to prevent it. We have to continue to think about worst-case scenarios.”

Dr. Acton then broke down how social distancing has been working in Ohio. Here is a map that compares the curves if nothing was done (yellow) and the current projection thanks to the measures that have been taken.

Here is a map that compares the two.

However, even with this initial success, Acton says if Ohioans let up, things will go south quickly.

The state is now starting to recognize different hot spots within the area.

Unemployment Update

Lt. Governor Husted spoke about his continued efforts on handling the unemployment situation in Ohio.

“Every day I’m on the phone with my team that is working on our unemployment system. They are processing a record number of claims. But we still know that not everyone is having a great experience. Their benefits will be backdated to the point they were eligible.”

There are now 829 employees working on this. The state has increased the size of the servers but morning and afternoons are typically the peak time.

“We hear your frustration,” said Husted. “I share your frustration, and we are continuing to work on this.”