Bald white man in a sheriff uniform

Morrow County Sheriff John Hinton

The ideological and cultural split between rural and urban Ohio – and the entire United States for that matter – has seemingly never been greater in our lifetime.

You can thank Trump for stoking rural America’s anger – arguably this disturbing resentment was set ablaze back in 2008 when the first African American became President.

Sneering at Columbus, a left-leaning sanctuary city, is one thing.

But letting any undocumented immigrant imprisoned in a rural Ohio prison to be treated as if their life didn’t matter and left to die from the coronavirus is akin to murder.

There are four U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted detention facilities in Ohio. And when ICE makes an arrest in Columbus, their detainee is likely to be transferred to its contracted jail in Mount Gilead, the Morrow County Correctional Facility, which is roughly an hour north of Columbus.

There are an estimated 80 inmates in total detained there as of early May, and about 60 are believed to be ICE detainees. On May 6th, the Morrow County Health District stated 50 of the 80 inmates have become infected with the coronavirus.

If you’ve followed our coverage in the past, you may know how some Columbus undocumenteds (many Latino) were simply driving out of their apartment complex when ICEcame out of the shadows to pull them over.

“Immigration detention should not be a death sentence,” urged the Ohio ACLU recently.

Ohio prisons have become besieged by the Covid-19 with both inmates and prison employees succumbing to the virus. This has made national news and tainted Gov. DeWine’s otherwise commendable strategy to stave off the virus.

For the better part of two weeks the Free Press has been speaking with detainees, their family, and activists regarding the ongoing infection crisis at the Morrow County Correctional Facility.

By all accounts, many of those who work at the Morrow County Correctional Facility don’t seem to care what the infection does to any of the inmates.

“They could care less here, this place is so dirty, and since (the pandemic started) it’s gotten worse,” says Malik, a Columbus resident and a native of Jordan facing deportation, who called the Free Press with his only free phone call for the week. “When the ICE officers come, they don’t even want to talk with us. I don’t know what’s going on with my case.”

Besides undocumenteds some of the other detainees are fighting addiction and committed a non-violent crime to feed their habit.

Tamara Carpenter’s boyfriend is “completely non-violent” but has battled addiction most of his adult life. The 24-year-old is currently detained on a charge of breaking and entering after attempting to steal a computer from a Morrow County school.

Carpenter said her boyfriend and his defense attorney sought his release due to his past tuberculosis diagnosis. During an April 6th hearing, however, a Morrow County judge denied his request, saying, “I am not releasing anybody, this pandemic will be over in two weeks.”

The Free Press could not independently confirm the judge’s statement.

“This judge is on power trip,” says Carpenter. “The judge doesn’t even think it’s a threat because it hasn’t hit Morrow County until now. I’m terrified for my boyfriend’s life.”

She says her boyfriend’s pod is overcrowded like all Ohio jails and prisons, so social distancing is impossible. Up until late April there was no soap for bathing unless you could purchase it yourself – and many could not, she said.

It gets worse. Her boyfriend told her no inmate received any PPE until there were positive cases. This was confirmed by Morrow County Sheriff John Hinton himself. He recently told 10TV news:

“When we had the first positive case in the jail we issued PPE to all the inmates,” Hinton said. “They received N95 masks. Our staff – they had the masks – at that point they donned their masks. Prior to the positive case no one was wearing PPE inside the facility.”

Why not?

“Being a rural county, I had just enough,” Hinton answered. “It’s one of those things where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Damned if you don’t, considering in 2016 the jail was cited by the Ohio Department Rehabilitation and Correction for not complying with 15 “essential” or “important” standards.

One of those “essential” standards out of compliance was an “infectious disease control program.” At minimum, stated the report, the jail should have an “exposure control plan and standard isolation precautions for inmates and staff, which are updated annually.”

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stated: “The jails current policy, procedure and practices need updated to reflect this standard and the components specified.”

The Ohio Immigrant Alliance and the ACLU of Ohio have been leading a push since March to reduce the number of people in Ohio jails and prisons, including those detained under civil immigration laws. 

They have had some success. After an ACLU Ohio lawsuit two undocumented immigrants, 33-year-old Mory Keita a native of Guinean and 34-year-old Sidi Nije of a native of Gambian, were released due to previously diagnosed health conditions that put them at risk to Covid-19.

But as mentioned, 50 of the 80 inmates have tested positive as of May 6th.

“Steps could have been taken to reduce the risk of exposure at Morrow County Jail, but they were not,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of Ohio Immigrant Alliance. This is a failure of leadership at the federal, state, and county levels. Now, all people detained at the Morrow County Jail must be tested for COVID-19, today. Everyone has been exposed.”