Elkton Correctional Officers Fighting Invisible Enemy

LISBON, Ohio — As positive cases of COVID-19 rise throughout Columbiana County, corrections officers at the Federal Corrections Institution in Elkton are finding themselves fighting an invisible enemy, one forcing them into their own type of imprisonment.

On Wednesday, the county health district reported 122 confirmed positive cases of the virus among county residents, including 60 at FCI Elkton. Of the 10 confirmed deaths reported in the county, five were inmates from the facility.

Joseph Mayle, president of the Law Enforcement Officers Union at FCI Elkton, reported Wednesday there are 33 inmates hospitalized, with 16 of those on ventilators; 85 quarantined and 45 in isolation at the prison, compared to 34 hospitalized, 17 on ventilators, 44 quarantined and 49 in isolation the previous day.

Most concerning to Mayle and to corrections officer Greg Davern, chief steward for the union, is the increased number of prison employees who now have tested positive, up to 30 on Wednesday from 22 Tuesday. On Monday, that number had been 14.

“There are 30 out sick with COVID, with 12 waiting for test results,” Mayle points out.

Davern says the number is “going through the roof” because employees are finding their own resources to be tested for COVID-19, whereas they previously were reporting to work without knowing whether or not they were positive.

“They’re (the Federal Bureau of Prisons) only making sure we don’t have a fever when we come to work. The BOP isn’t testing us because the tests are still hard to get,” Davern says.

Those who test positive but are not necessarily sick have been taking off the 14-day quarantine period at their own volition, not because they have been ordered to do so, he says, adding, “The Department of Justice hasn’t done anything but say come back to work if you don’t have a temperature.”

Davern was sent home early in March after coming in contact with someone positive for the virus, and says, “I went to my own doctor to get an expert opinion. I didn’t want to bring it back in (the prison) and expose anyone else. I took a two-week quarantine myself.”

The county health commissioner ordered all corrections officers at FCI Elkton to home quarantine due to the situation at the facility, meaning they are restricted from going anywhere except work and medical appointments and are expected to have little to no contact with even their family.

Davern admits, “Yesterday was my birthday and I couldn’t do anything. My mom couldn’t come over.” But, he says, “I’m fortunate. I don’t have a family (at home). Some of them, their wives won’t even let them come home because they have young kids. Some are staying at friends’ homes.

“You’re pretty much a prisoner, too,” he laments.

He calls the virus, “a nonvisual enemy,” saying, “You can’t see this enemy. It just creeps in and wreaks havoc.”

The employees, he says, “are facing a terrible situation and are still coming to work and giving it everything they can. They’re showing up in the face of a silent killer and putting everything on the line.”

The BOP has made available a crisis support team for employees who might need debriefed after dealing with this invisible enemy. But Davern says, “There’s only so much they can do each day for someone living with this.”

Meanwhile, with so many corrections officers off duty, Mayle said they are being replaced temporarily with corrections officers from other federal prisons, saying he expects 20 officers and five medical personnel from other institutions in the next few days.

The Ohio National Guard has been on-site at FCI Elkton since April 6 at the direction of Gov. Mike DeWine to assist medical personnel, and the governor was questioned during his Wednesday afternoon briefing whether the original seven to 10 day period they were to be there will be extended or if federal assistance had been provided. He said he would “have to check” on that.

In related issues, the county health district reported Wednesday that seven of the confirmed positive COVID-19 cases were those in long-term care facilities in the county. Also reported were one probable positive case not included in the total of 122 cases and one probable COVID-19 death not included in the total of 10. In addition to the five deaths of prison inmates, one death was that of someone in a long-term facility in the county.

According to the FBOP, the latest inmate to die from COVID-19 was 71-year-old David Elhe, who was sent to a local hospital due to inability to maintain oxygen saturation and bilateral pneumonia. At the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19 and his condition quickly declined. He died April 14, according to the FBOP, which reported Ehle had pre-existing medical conditions.

The health district also on Wednesday addressed questions arisen about DeWine’s recent order restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages to only Ohio residents. “It is our understanding that this order does not apply to beer and wine sales,” said Laura Fauss, public information officer.

The Ohio Department of Health reported Wednesday that Columbiana County has 123 positive cases, 78 hospitalized and 10 deaths.

Related coverage:
April 14, 2020: In Class Action Lawsuit, Elkton Inmates Reveal Conditions Inside Prison

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