As the pandemic progresses, inmates at Southeast Ohio Regional Jail have voiced concern over their safety in the facility.
Inmate Jerry Dishong, for example, described his days at SEORJ during a phone interview with The Athens NEWS.
“You start off the day with boredom, followed by a bunch more boredom,” he said. He described his experience during October at the jail as lacking physical distancing and having sparse personal protection, reportedly witnessing staff who were oftentimes maskless or improperly wearing a mask.
“They don’t care if we die here,” Dishong said.
SEORJ, located in Nelsonville, houses inmates from multiple counties across the region, including Athens, Hocking, Perry, Morgan and Vinton Counties. Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn confirmed that 173 inmates are currently in the facility, which had a max capacity of 230 before the pandemic, as of Tuesday morning. Less than 45 inmates at the facility as of Tuesday morning are from Athens County.
Inmates are given face masks when they enter the facility, SEORJ Warden Joshua VanBibber said, and they are changed out “periodically” and when a mask becomes soiled. 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 previously reported that SEORJ has quarantined jail staffers at home for symptoms until those symptoms “subsided.”
VanBibber also said he requires his staff to wear face masks during their shifts, and frequently touched surfaces (such as door handles) in the facility are sanitized throughout the day. Inmates are also given some cleaning supplies and face masks, but they are not required to wear them.
Linzie McDargh, who was an inmate at SEORJ in October, told The Athens NEWS that this was far from his experience at the regional jail: during his time in the facility, McDargh reported that inmates received only a couple of masks during their sentences, and correction officers wore masks sporadically throughout the day, sometimes simply for 15 minutes at the beginning of their shift.
Physical distancing was also incredibly limited in the facility, and McDargh told The NEWS that when he arrived at the facility, he was informed by other inmates that they created a system to stagger shower times throughout the day in order to avoid crowding.
McDargh did note, too, that top bunks in the cells are supposed to be left vacant as a physical distancing measure.
Visitation to correctional facilities during the pandemic has been non-existent, so many inmates correspond with their loved ones through other methods of contact. During McDargh's time in SEORJ, he corresponded with his wife, Suzanne Greif, through phone calls and video chats on a platform called "Securus."
He and Greif spoke extensively about the environment in the facility as he was there. Greif spearheaded several efforts to raise awareness on the issue of incarceration during the pandemic, including correspondence in the form of letters, phone calls and emails with county leaders and jail staff.
Greif noted many individuals who may serve sentences in correctional facilities are in recovery, and time in jail often times disrupts "the continuity of care."
VanBibber previously told The Athens NEWS that some inmates are coming and going from the jail in order to go to treatment facilities and court appointments.
Inmates at SEORJ have previously announced worries associated with being incarcerated during a global pandemic. Specifically, a group of Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail inmates posted a YouTube video earlier this year 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.” A small group of Regional Jail inmates reported in the April video that they’ve been held for a significant period of time on what they called lower-level offenses and parole violations, inmate James Picklesimer then reported.
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.”
The Nelsonville facility has reported one confirmed case of COVID-19 with an inmate and an additional case confirmed with a staff member since the start of the pandemic, VanBibber said.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) set the requirements for COVID-19 screening for all people entering correctional facilities, VanBibber said. Jails are required to verbally screen people coming through their doors, and people are asked if in the past 14 days if they have come into contact for a “prolonged time” with a person who is known to be infected with COVID-19. If the answer is no, that person can proceed to work in the facility.
Temperature checks are also administered to people as they come into the facility, and those with temperatures greater than 100 degrees are not permitted to enter the building, according to DRC guidelines.
Athens County Common Pleas Judges George McCarthy and Pat Lang’s offices both previously 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.
Some procedures have changed within the county’s court system, with some hearings moving to a digital format.
“Since COVID-19 became an issue in March of this year, the Athens Common Pleas Court has added the capability of holding hearings by video with the jail and prisons. We hold such hearings regularly now by video which has reduced transportation of persons between the court and the jail,” McCarthy told The Athens NEWS in an email. “For those persons being held for Athens cases who tested positive who have been quarantined we have been able to hold hearings by video. This reduces the chance of possible contamination with anyone who may or may not be showing COVID-19 symptoms and staff and the public. It has had an additional effect of reducing transportation costs and time of personnel.”
Judge McCarthy said the county obtained a grant for $18,000 from the Supreme Court of Ohio for “the expenses of purchasing and installing” the system necessary for the video hearings.
“Anyone with an Athens case who has been held in the jail has received all the days credit towards any sentence they may have received they are lawfully entitled to,” he said.