Oscar and his daughter

Over the previous five years the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections twice told the ICE-contracted Morrow County Correctional Facility its infectious disease control plan was out of compliance. The jail was cited in 2016 and again 2018.

What’s more, the jail was told to collaborate with its local health authority – the Morrow County Health District – to update and improve the plan. The jail is one of four Ohio jails contracted to hold ICE detainees, and about an hour’s drive north of Columbus.

In November of 2019 after another inspection, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) finally found the jail’s infectious disease control plan in compliance.

Nevertheless, as of mid-May, every single inmate at the Morrow County Correctional Facility had tested positive for COVID-19, this according to U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of Ohio Sarah D. Morrison (a Trump appointee), who so far has ordered the release of 15 ICE detainees from the jail after the ACLU sued ICE.

The jail currently holds 60 or so inmates. About 35 are ICE detainees, and many likely from Columbus. As of August 2019, the jail was receiving $68.83 each day from ICE for each immigrant detainee.

This past Mother’s Day, ICE detainee Óscar López Acosta, who had spent 18-months at the jail but released in late April due to an at-risk health condition, died from the virus. By all accounts the 42-year-old from Dayton was a hardworking, devoted husband and father who spent much of his time in jail reading the Bible.

How easily the virus took over this jail no doubt raises questions concerning the ODRC’s decision in November of 2019 to rule the jail compliant. What this essentially means is the jail, as defined by state law, was capable and ready to face an infectious disease.

The ODRC’s own requirements for this compliance demanded the jail work with the Morrow County Health District to update its response. Undoubtedly, personnel from both the jail and health authority must have been trained in some way in the event of an outbreak.

But whether any corrections officers or medical personnel received training is in doubt.

The Free Press was told by Morrow County Health District director Stephanie Bragg she could not find any record of working with the jail on an infectious disease plan. Bragg said she was appointed director just this year and said this is probably the reason why she is unaware there was planning.

“I do know the Sheriff has an infection control program,” said Bragg. “I collaborate with the Sheriff all the time. We work together on planning and mitigation. The whole county has been working together before there was even any cases in our county on what we were going to do before it got here because we knew it was going to be everywhere.”

The jail’s director, Morrow County Sheriff John Hinton, did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails.

Perhaps he is starting to realize his response to the virus may have cost someone’s life – Óscar López Acosta’s.

Judge Sarah D. Morrison, who’s office conducted an investigation prior to the release of the 15 inmates, confirms his handling of the virus was far from adequate:

·      “Through inadequate testing, inadequate observation, and inadequate isolation strategies, Morrow allowed its infection numbers to soar exponentially, and now every detainee in the large and small dormitories has been infected. This reckless, out-of-control spread of infection is constitutionally unacceptable,” stated Judge Morrison.

·      “Corrections officers, not trained medical personnel” were taking vital signs, and the thermometers they used expired in 2016. Judge Morrison pointed out, “that the sampling of temperature readings…were below normal including one below 95 degrees, the clinical benchmark for hypothermia.”

·      Failed to provide COVID-sick inmates Tylenol unless their temperatures reach 104.

·      “There is evidence that even when detainees report serious symptoms, or appear to be in distress, no action is taken,” wrote Judge Morrison, who explained that detainee Bernardo Diaz Rodriguez begged to see a doctor for days as his condition worsened. “As he struggled to breathe, the response by the staff at Morrow was to send a corrections officer in to take his temperature and to bring him a blanket.”

·      Inmates had to purchase their own soap and some could not. The jail failed to provide soap to inmates before mid-March, and failed to keep a consistent supply of soap and other cleaning products in the jail to this day. “The bathrooms in both dormitories are filthy. Only one showerhead in the small dormitory is functional and its water pressure is barely a trickle. There is a broken toilet leaking in the large dormitory.”

The Ohio Immigrant Alliance believes the Morrow County Health District is also at fault.

The health district is dealing with an unprecedented crisis, and the district and its staff should be commended, but their county’s largest outbreak occurred at the jail. If it had been more pro-active, Óscar López Acosta may still be alive, says the non-profit’s director Lynn Tramonte.

Determined to get the health district’s attention, Tramonte called on activists and others to bombard the health district’s May 18th online board meeting with a virtual protest. During the meeting, many activists changed their profile picture to show a picture of Acosta holding his toddler daughter.

“The thing that really got me was that (director) Stephanie Bragg said she found the photo of Oscar infuriating,” said Tramonte. “She said, ‘I have to stop looking at these photos or I’ll get infuriated.’ It was so inhumane. I remember thinking, ‘Why are you angry, you should be sad?’”

Tramonte also believes Bragg wasn’t aware of how poorly the jail was handling the spread or of Judge Morrison’s findings. Remember, this board meeting and virtual protest happened on May 18th.

“Absolutely. One-hundred thousand percent. She will never admit that, but that is one-hundred thousand percent the case,” says Tramonte.

Bragg said this is not true.

“I made it very clear at our meeting on Monday. That the jail, the Sheriff’s office, my office, the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, that all of us at some point or another have been all been on calls together, most of us at the same time, working through this. The Sheriff’s office isn’t handling this by themselves,” said Bragg.

There are larger issues here beyond Morrow County. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections – and ICE for that matter – have lost control of how some of its prisons and jails are run. The Ohio ACLU reported this week Ohio is responsible for 13.6 percent of all COVID-19 prison deaths across the US.

“Morrow County is like the Wild West,” says Tramonte. “They think they can just pack immigrants into the jail and let them all get COVID-19 and no one will say anything or do anything. The immigrants they have in that jail are fathers and husbands.”

Tramonte says there is only one solution. She’s been urging Gov. DeWine to shut down the jail and send all undocumented detainees to home confinement or hotels. She has heard nothing from DeWine.

Columbus City Council Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown has sent a letter to the Morrow County Health District saying it is “advisable to release as many inmates and ICE detainees as possible, while maintaining public safety, to alleviate these conditions and allow for proper safety protocols to be implemented at the facility.”