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Calls Grow for Mass Release from Ohio’s Marion Prison as 80% of Prisoners Test Positive for COVID-19

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We get an update on one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, where 11 prisoners and one staff member have died, and at least 80% of prisoners and half of the prison staff tested positive. Despite growing calls to release thousands of Ohio’s nearly 50,000 incarcerated people as the coronavirus spreads, Governor Mike DeWine has only approved the release of more than 100 people in the state’s prisons. “We’re seeing a few people being released … but not anywhere near the 20,000 [we are] demanding,” says Azzurra Crispino, whose husband, James, is incarcerated at Marion. She is co-founder of Prison Abolition Prisoner Support.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to a prison in Ohio where one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. has killed at least 11 prisoners and one staff member. Eighty percent of the prisoners, half the prison staff at Marion Correctional Institution tested positive for COVID-19 in April, making it the largest virus hot spot in the country. A massive outbreak has also devastated Pickaway prison, where at least 23 prisoners and one staff member have died from the virus. This is an incarcerated person at Marion describing conditions inside the prison.

INCARCERATED PERSON: I’m in Marion Correctional, where the coronavirus is just spreading like wildfire. Out of 2,500 people, they say 1,300 people got it. You know, that’s a scary thought. I might not make it home to my children, you know. I just wanted to speak up for what I believe in, and hopefully that this will make a difference and it reaches the right hands and, you know, we get some kind of relief. All I can ask is just keep us in your prayers.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite growing calls to release thousands of Ohio’s nearly 50,000 prisoners as the coronavirus spreads, Governor Mike DeWine has only approved the release of more than 100 people in the state’s prisons. Protesters recently held a car demonstration outside the Ohio Statehouse demanding the governor free 20,000 people in May. Demonstrators spoke to ABC News. This clip begins with Teresa Rogers, whose son is imprisoned in Ohio.

TERESA ROGERS: I think it’s a reasonable number, but most of them are going to get out anyway. Most of them are on their way out anyway.

CHAZIDY BOWMAN: How are we protecting these people? They don’t have proper PPEs. Some of them have masks that are made from toilet paper and sheets.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative finds that while some jails have drastically cut populations, state prisons have released almost no one.

Well, for more, we go to Austin, Texas, where we’re joined by Azzurra Crispino, co-founder of Prison Abolition Prisoner Support, or PAPS, associate professor of philosophy at Austin Community College in Texas. Her husband James is incarcerated at Marion.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us, Azzurra, about the situation at Marion? I mean, this is 80% of the prisoners and half the staff? What are you demanding? How is your husband? You’re asking that he be released. He has served the vast majority of his time. What is the response?

AZZURRA CRISPINO: So far, we have received a response from the County Prosecutor’s Office filing a motion against his judicial release, and we are waiting for Judge Wanda Jones to decide whether she will grant him a hearing or if she will deny his judicial release. We’re seeing a few people being released out of Marion through the judicial release process. They are able to attend hearings by teleconference, if they wish, but not anywhere near the 20,000 in May that we and others in our coalition are demanding.

In terms of conditions at Marion, Governor DeWine has been bragging about the fact that he called in the National Guard. However, that has substantially increased tensions, as you have people who are not trained in deescalation and really don’t understand the prison environment. You have incarcerated people who are taking care of each other, as they are scared to request medical facilities, because they are led to believe, and probably are, being placed in solitary confinement conditions if they are seen as being too sick, and then they won’t be able to help each other. So, we’re getting reports of people using Vicks VapoRub and putting it in hotpots to basically create steamers for their fellow incarcerated people. Meanwhile, the governor is bragging about how great a resolution to this situation Ohio has.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Azzurra Crispino, this is not just an Ohio problem. Obviously, we’re getting the reports — we’ve seen reports that in Cook County Jail in Chicago, 800 confirmed cases of the virus, and so far six prisoners and one correction officer have died. We’re seeing in New York City, at Rikers Island, 800 city correction employees have tested positive, and eight have died. The city jails seem to be moving much more quickly to reduce prison populations, but some of the state prison systems are much more slower to react or are resisting.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Why do you think that is?

AZZURRA CRISPINO: Well, I think that it’s a political problem, right? The governors don’t want to be seen as being soft on crime. And politically, they have absolutely nothing to lose. Whereas those of us who have family and friends who are incarcerated understand that these are loved ones, and we don’t want to see them die. In addition, I don’t think that there’s been enough focus on the judiciary and how it can be involved. Now, Ohio is a little unique because it has a completely different parole system than most states. Long/short, it almost got rid of parole in ’97.

So, what that means is that it’s easier for political officials to basically be able to pass the hot potato around, I think, in state facilities, in a way that we have not seen at the federal level or at the city and county jails, where, due to the pretrial nature of many people, I think there’s been a greater focus on helping people who are presumed innocent. So, I think, ultimately, this is a question of humanization. As long as we continue to see incarcerated people as disposable, then we’re not going to deal with this problem head on.

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The Case for Prison Abolition: Ruth Wilson Gilmore on COVID-19, Racial Capitalism & Decarceration

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