In Class Action Lawsuit, Elkton Inmates Reveal Conditions Inside Prison

LISBON, Ohio — With reports Monday of a fourth inmate at Federal Correction Institution Elkton dying from COVID-19, inmates that joined the ACLU in filing a lawsuit aimed at getting them released have provided detailed descriptions of life inside the prison.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs – four inmates at the prison – argue that their Eighth Amendment constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment are being infringed upon, that Elkton has “neither the capacity nor ability to comply with public health guidelines to manage the outbreak of COVID-19 and cannot provide for the safety of the prisoners.”

The lawsuit is asking the Federal Bureau of Prisons to identify, within six hours of a court order, a list of all medically vulnerable inmates and to release all such persons within 24 hours or to show just cause why that shouldn’t happen. 

Defendants in the lawsuit are Elkton warden Mark Williams and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal.

“I feel like I’ve been handed a death sentence,” inmate Craig Wilson, declares in his statement contained as part of the petition filed Monday in United States District Court Northern District.

The 42-year-old inmate says he has suffered since childhood from chronic asthma and must use inhalers, steroids and breathing machines to breathe properly.

“I know that my condition puts me in a high-risk category for COVID-19, and I’m afraid that if I catch it, I will die,” he says. 

According to Wilson, the prison established a protocol early in March to keep the facility free of the virus that he understood included keeping staff on the grounds for two-week intervals, testing them upon arrival and departure, and with mats, bedding and food brought in for staff members. 

“That plan was quickly abandoned,” he says in the petition. “I understood that to be because the staff didn’t want to cooperate with the plan, because I heard some of them say so.”

Wilson continues, “It has been complete chaos since the coronavirus began to spread inside FCI Elkton,” and describes in the declaration staff members using thermometers for multiple people that are wiped off with a sanitary napkin, inmates receiving two single-use masks a couple weeks ago, lack of soap and sanitizer in the unit, and a “big jar of watered-down antibacterial spray for the dorm to share,” as well as access to one shared area for hot water for all 150 people in the unit. 

“The number of people who are showing symptoms is staggering. A steady flow of people have ended up in the hospital, with ambulances leaving at all hours. I know three people have passed away,” says in his declaration, filed before a fourth death was reported Monday. “They were sick in bed with a fever, moved to a hospital, and never returned.”

Some staff members aren’t wearing protective gear and are “hiding for the most part,” Wilson says. “We only see them during count times. Many are sympathetic to the prisoners but unable to help. I’ve heard that the National Guard is here for medical assistance and staffing shortages, but I haven’t seen any of them.”

He continues, “I’m worried that it’s going to come to the point of a riot soon.”

Also involved in the lawsuit is 52-year-old inmate Eric Bellamy, who says in his declaration he has a history of heart problems, including an enlarged heart valve and two valves which are regurgitating, hypertension and worsening vision problems caused by his heart condition.

Bellamy, too, says he knows he is at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 due to his health conditions. “There is no way to social distance inside FCI Elkton. I’m housed in a cell with two other men, crowded into maybe a 6-foot-by-8-foot area with a bunk bed and an extra bed. The whole prison is overcrowded, and every bed is taken up,” he says.

Bellamy says that, at any given moment, he is no more than one to two feet away from someone else, with no way to keep more distance from each other. 

Saying nothing is being done to separate those inmates who are older or higher risk, like him, Bellamy relates that he was friends with prisoner Woodrow Taylor, who was the first inmate from FCI Elkton to die from COVID-19.

“After he was taken away to medical, they posted an ‘enter at your own risk’ sign on his room,” Bellamy says.

Housed in the low-security satellite camp at Elkton, inmate Kendal Nelson, 46, offers in his declaration that he suffers from coronary artery disease, kidney disease, asthma, a twisted aorta and sleep apnea.

With 170 men in his pod living three to a cell in spaces he says were made for single occupancy, Nelson says, “Everywhere we go, we’re all bunched up together and keeping our distance is impossible. You can’t even walk around, much less maintain distance. That’s true everywhere – near the phones, near the computers, everywhere. Sickness spreads quickly here. We don’t have much time before all of us gets it.”

He, too, knew Taylor and was in the same pod with him. 

“Woodrow had a bad heart and a bad kidney, just like me and that fact that he died makes me scared. I also saw when another prisoner, Margarito Garcia-Fragoso, was taken out. He later died, also. Most of the men in my pod are coughing but don’t have fevers. If you have a fever, they take you out of the pod into quarantine, but if not, you stay. A bunch of people have been taken out, but then they brought prisoners who were quarantined back into the pod with everyone else,” he says.

Nelson adds, “I haven’t been tested. As far as I know, they’re only testing the dead.”

The inmates’ concerns are echoed in the lawsuit by a declaration from Cleveland State University anthropology and sociology professor Meghan Novisky.

“One of the greatest challenges facing prisons regarding the provision of health services is that prisons, by their very nature are high risk sites for the spread of infectious disease,” Novisky says. She cites close proximity of many people often made worse by overcrowding, shared equipment tied to risky health behaviors such as tattooing, the compromised ability to maintain hygiene, substandard health care services and lack of awareness about infection status, as well as high stress levels that weaken the immune system.

According to Novisky, a March 24 press release in which the Federal Bureau of Prisons stated it was taking aggressive steps to protect the safety and security of all staff, inmates, visitors and family members “lacked the vision necessary to adequately contain and minimize spread of COVID-19.”

She points to the Bureau of Prisons’ plan to designate available space for isolation and quarantine of inmates exposed to or with symptoms. 

“Given that asymptomatic people can still be contagious, it would be impossible for institutions to definitively identify those exposed,” she says. “Further, isolation of symptomatic prisoners does nothing to address those who are contagious but not symptomatic, nor does it address the threats contagious staff members pose to the incarcerated.” 

Novisky declares in the petition, “Based on my expertise on the health related risks associated with incarceration, it is my belief that if serious action is not taken swiftly, prisons under the jurisdiction of the [Federal Bureau of Prisons], including Elkton, will escalate further, serving as hotspots for COVID-19, much like  would be the case if people were forced to live on a crowded cruise ship during a pandemic.”

She predicts that, without “drastic intervention,” many more inmates and staff members will become infected and face elevated risk for complications and death. 

Novisky says halting prisoner visitation at Elkton will not stop the transmission of the virus between prisoner population and the community, due to the number of staff members filtering in and out daily and, now, the number of prisoners being transported to community hospitals for care. 

“Significantly reducing the prison population at Elkton as rapidly as possible is the best line of defense to maintain the public health interests of persons incarcerated [there], correctional staff who work [there] and the Ohio community,” Novisky says. “It is my recommendation that all prisons under the jurisdiction of the [Federal Bureau of Prisons] should do the same. Based on the existing evidence about COVID-19, failing to do so will have grave consequences and long-term traumatic impacts for many.”

In response to an inquiry Tuesday about the lawsuit, the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment because of the pending litigation. However, it did say in a release that “given the surge in positive cases in Columbiana County, and the growing number of quarantine, isolation and positive cases at FCI Elkton, the health commissioner of the Columbiana County Health District assisted in coordinating additional medical resources.”

The release noted that the Army Corp of Engineers and Ohio National Guard are providing 32 medical care providers, including physicians, midlevel providers, medics, phlebotomists and radiology technicians who are utilizing an in-patient bridge unit which can provide lab testing, portable X-rays and in-patient care to inmates. 

This will enable the prison to decrease the number of inmates requiring transport to local hospitals, alleviating pressure on those hospitals for their available bed space, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“The BOP very much appreciates the assistance of and coordination with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Ohio National Guard in providing this additional medical support to FCI Elkton,” the release says.

The bureau says it has been coordinating its COVID-19 efforts since January, using guidance and directives from the World Health Organization, CDC, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Justice and Office of the Vice President. 

An incident action plan was developed that addresses continuity operations program, supply management, inmate movement, inmate visitation, official staff travel and more, according to the release.

Among the first steps taken were those essential to slowing spread of the virus, including establishing a task force to begin strategic planning and building on existing procedures for managing pandemics. Facility-to-facility transfers, as well as other inmate movement, were limited and screening, quarantine and isolation procedures implemented, the release says. 

Social and legal visits were suspended, access was limited for contractors and volunteers, screening for inmates and staff was enhanced and inventorying of sanitation, cleaning and medical supplies was begun. Procurement of additional supplies also began.

Sanitation efforts continue at all institutions, according to the release. Staff are being assigned to the same posts and not rotating, personal protective equipment is being used under CDC guidelines to optimize the limited supply, surgical masks were issued to staff and inmates, with prison factories now producing cloth mask coverings for staff and inmates.

“We understand these are stressful times for both staff and inmates. We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in. It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities,” the release concludes.

At Elkton, staff members are under a quarantine order from the county health district, allowing them to go to work and on medical visits only. 

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.