Man in uniform

Morrow County Sheriff John Hinton

How much incompetence can one county jail exhibit, and continue to operate? A jail break Tuesday (September 8th) from the Morrow County Correctional Facility in Mt. Gilead should be the last straw. 

Despite warnings this would happen, the Morrow County Correctional Facility (MCCF) became 100% COVID-positive this year. Since the jail doubles as a federal detention center for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), MCCF became the first 100% COVID-positive ICE facility in the nation.

Now, with two jailbreaks and a suicide in the past few weeks, one has to wonder: When will the Morrow County Commissioners, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, or anyone else with authority step in and say enough is enough, this jail needs to close?

“Maybe Sheriff (John) Hinton thought no one would notice his corner-cutting and incompetence,” said Lynn Tramonte, Director of Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “But it’s hard to cover up one suicide, two jailbreaks, and a 100% COVID infection rate in a matter of months – although he certainly tried. If Morrow County can’t manage a jail, it shouldn’t be in charge of one. To protect public health and safety, the Morrow County Correctional Facility must close.” 

Not only is the Morrow County Jail severely mismanaged, but Sheriff Hinton is notorious for keeping the public, or even his own County Commissioners and Health District, informed. The suicide, which took place on August 8, still has not been disclosed to the public. The first jailbreak, on August 21, was only reported on social media when recapture proved elusive and hours had passed. The most recent jailbreak, Tuesday night (September 8th), was not disclosed until the man was back in custody. The Morrow County Sheriff’s Office did report this escapee had jumped into an occupied car at a gas station and left the scene. There was no mention whether the occupant of the car was physically harmed.

As one resident wrote on the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page: “Communication is a public safety issue. Perhaps the carjacking and kidnapping wouldn’t have happened if people had been given a heads up of what was going on, sometime in the 35 minutes between the escape and the second incident. Also, why do these escapes keep happening? Will the public be made aware of the results of the investigation into this and the August 21st jail escapes, including what steps the jail plans to take to prevent these escapes from reoccurring in the future?”

Following is a “Timeline of Incompetence” exhibited by the Morrow County Correctional Facility in recent months, as well as the refusal of County leadership to step in. 

February: Freedom For Immigrants filed a complaint with the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office, ICE, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, detailing fifteen serious violations of the ICE 2019 National Detention Standards at MCCF. Overcrowding, lack of soap and access to clean facilities, and deficient health care – all risk factors for a COVID outbreak, were reported by inmates and their family members.

March: Sheriff Hinton received protective masks, but refused to use them, saving them for when the jail had its first positive case. 

April and May: American ProspectReveal News, Columbus Free PressABC 6Progressive MagazineMother JonesWCPO, and many other outlets exposed the unsanitary conditions at MCCF and its risk for becoming a COVID hotspot. The first COVID cases at the jail were formally reported on April 23. Sadly, Oscar Lopez of Dayton died of COVID after being released from MCCF and sent home to quarantine. 

Thermometers used in the facility were found to have expired in 2016. No medical doctor had been seen in the facility in months, and nursing staff hours were limited, even when more and more people began to get sick. Corrections Officers were placed in medical roles.

In a scathing order in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Ohio, U.S. District Judge Sarah D. Morrison wrote: “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.” 

Judge Morrison ordered the release of several medically-vulnerable ICE detainees from MCCF, given “Morrow’s inability to control the spread of infection, its demonstrated failures at monitoring detainees’ symptoms, and its poor conditions [which] create[d] an unconstitutionally acceptable environment.” 

Columbus City Council President Pro Tempore Liz Brown sent a letter to Morrow County Health Commissioner expressing concerns about her constituents detained at the jail by ICE. At a May 18 meeting of the Morrow County Health District, the Ohio Immigrant AllianceDr. Laura Chambers-Smith, and allies warned that the jail conditions were rife for a massive outbreak. Our information was disputed and rejected by the Commissioner and Board of Health. 

After 61% of the inmates tested positive, the jail stopped isolating and testing people, accepting that the entire population was already infected. No doctors attended to patients in the facility. MCCF stopped taking in new inmates and ICE detainees.

June: Ohio Immigrant Alliance issued a report about the conditions that lead to MCCF becoming 100% COVID-19 positive, including violations of the jail’s own Infectious Disease Control Program and National Detention Standards required in the ICE contract. The report included analysis from medical professionals and was covered in the Mansfield News Journal

Hundreds of Ohioans signed a petition to the jail and County Commissioners demanding closure of the jail. Both the report and petition were delivered directly to Commissioner Whiston on June 8. The Sheriff and County Health District attempted to refute the findings, but their problem was one of simple math and logic. The jail reopened to new inmates.

July: Ohio Immigrant Alliance testified at the Ohio Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights about the conditions at MCCF, asking for federal intervention. 

August: On August 8, an inmate killed himself despite having warned that he was going to committee suicide and supposedly being “on watch” within the facility. No information about his suicide has ever been released to the public. On August 21, Kevin Fields escaped from the jail. He was apprehended around 11:30pm the next day, and the public wasn’t notified about this escape until hours after it happened.

September: Zebadiah Eggers escaped from the jail around 7pm on September 8, but again the public was not notified. Eggers ended up getting a ride from a stranger who did not know that Eggers was a wanted person. Later that night, Eggers was re-arrested by deputies and only then was the public notified about his escape.

Ohio Immigrant Alliance filed a public records request with the Morrow County Prosecutor’s Office, requesting information regarding medical care, interpreters, procurement of supplies, staffing, and other aspects of jail management that appear to be lacking.

Added Tramonte: “They say ‘Where there is smoke, there is fire.’ Everyone in Morrow County knows that this jail is mismanaged. The situation at the jail is at the breaking point. It is past time for this jail to close.”

Follow the Ohio Immigrant Alliance on Twitter @tramontela,