SEORJ inmates

A screenshot of a video of concerned inmates at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail.

A group of Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail inmates posted a YouTube video last week raising concerns about being held at that facility during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. They complained that their right to a speedy trial has been “abused.”

Two of Athens County’s judges said in statements last week after the video was released that for the most part, they have tried to keep non-violent and low-level offenders out of the Regional Jail in Nelsonville, instead electing to either release them on bond, release them into treatment facilities, order house arrest, or place them in community-based corrections facilities. 

Meanwhile, at least in the case of the Athens County Common Pleas Court, normal operating hours will resume starting on Monday, May 11, with hearings being conducted by video conference or telephone where possible, and anyone visiting the county Courthouse required to wear masks, according to a release issued last week. With Athens County Municipal Court, hearings will continue digitally, Judge Todd Grace said in an email last week.

With regard to the video posted on April 28, a small group of Regional Jail inmates reported that they’ve been held for a significant period of time on what they called lower-level offenses and parole violations, inmate James Picklesimer reported (he’s being held there on a parole violation). Still, Picklesimer said they want to make the most out of their time in jail, offering to make personal protection equipment.

The description of the video also alleged that the inmates with health issues such as asthma or upper respiratory problems are still being held with no protections during the pandemic.

“The higher-ups for these counties have done absolutely NOTHING for these inmates because no positive cases have been confirmed,” the video’s description alleged. “There are inmates constantly in and out that could be possible carriers of the virus. Since no testing is being done, there is no possible way for an inmate to know if they or anyone around has the life-threatening virus.”

SEORJ Warden Joshua VanBibber said in an interview Monday and a separate interview last month that the regional jail has been proactive in dealing with the coronavirus, adding that no coronavirus cases had been confirmed at the jail as of his statement Monday, even as prisons in Ohio have experienced large numbers of cases. Still, he confirmed that SEORJ has only tested one inmate for the coronavirus so far since the pandemic began (that test came back negative).

While Ohio’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations has been reporting regular updates on confirmed coronavirus cases in the state’s prison system, no similar update has been made public on the state’s jail system, which are often run by the counties themselves. ODRC spokespeople did not return a request for comment sent last Thursday.

Athens County Common Pleas Judges George McCarthy and Pat Lang’s offices both confirmed in separate statements that Athens County has tried to keep offenders out of jails, preferring to place them in community-based correctional facilities or treatment facilities. Both courts also worked with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office to remove people from jail back in March when the pandemic reached Ohio.

County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn confirmed that as of Monday, about 128 inmates were at SEORJ (which has a capacity of 230 people), with 23 people there coming from the Athens County court/law enforcement system. During the pandemic especially, Blackburn said, his office has worked with the court system to put people into treatment facilities rather than jail (although his office has tried to make that a priority for the last 10 years, he said). As of last Thursday, 19 people had been placed into treatment facilities. He said that some inmates remain in the jail on violent crimes such as murder and rape, and others remain due to repeated probation violations.

VanBibber said that all employees at the jail have been given masks, though they are not required to wear them. He said there’s a thrice-daily cleaning schedule for the jail, and added that inmates have been provided with extra cleaning supplies. With the lower population in the jail than usual due to the judges’ orders, he said, the jail has been able to put distance between the inmates in each individual block.

VanBibber added that any inmates who show signs of sickness consistent with the coronavirus are quarantined until the jail can get coronavirus test results back. The warden reported that SEORJ has quarantined jail staffers at home for symptoms until those symptoms “subsided,” but only one of those staffers was ever tested (a worker from Gallia County).

“He was tested, quarantined at home, and his test came back negative,” VanBibber said.

VanBibber did say that some inmates are coming and going from the jail in order to go to treatment facilities and court appointments, which was another concern mentioned in the SEORJ inmates’ video description.

VanBibber added that he’s willing to consider the potential for the Regional Jail to have inmates make PPE or other equipment, but he said the jail doesn’t have the ability to provide tools or machines to make those items. Itt would be up to individual companies or businesses to reach out to the jail to provide those opportunities, he added.

 

IN OTHER NEWS, Judge McCarthy said in an email last week that he understood the inmates’ concerns, adding that he doesn’t want to keep inmates in the Regional Jail during the pandemic any longer than needed.

“I’m not a big fan of them sitting there this long. But we are getting back to holding hearings next week,” he said. “It is not the court’s desire to hold them any longer than necessary both for their sake as well as the county’s sake. I know since the quarantine started, the Common Pleas Court has ordered eligible people into community-based correctional facility programs (CBCF) as an alternative to them just sitting in jail. This was accomplished with the help of the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office and public defender office on cases they agreed on.”

Athens County Municipal Judge Todd Grace said in an email last week that none of the people in the video are being held at the Regional Jail on “Athens County issues.”

He added that very few people are being held at the jail from the Municipal Court.

“…People are not being held on Municipal Court cases unless they are found to present a risk of harm, such as a Domestic Violence or Violation of a Protection Order Charge,” he said.

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