3 Dead, 20 Elkton Inmates Hospitalized, Staff ‘Angry’

Updated 1:36 p.m. with information about purported video from an inmate shown this morning by CBS News.
LISBON, Ohio — As the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Columbiana County increased Sunday, so did the number of deaths at the Federal Correction Institution Elkton, where a third inmate death was reported.

On Sunday afternoon, the Ohio Department of Health reported 42 positive cases of COVID-19 in Columbiana County, the disease spread by coronavirus, 26 hospitalizations and five deaths from the virus in Columbiana County.

Twenty of the individuals hospitalized are inmates at the federal prison, according to the president of the union that represents most employees there.

Laura Fauss, public information officer for the Columbiana County General Health District, said Sunday, “We have been working with the prison and hope to be able to release additional prison information soon,” referring those with other questions pertaining to the facility to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website at BOP.gov.

According to a Saturday release from the BOP, inmate Frank McCoy, 76, died Thursday at an area hospital from COVID-19 after having first reported March 26 to the prison’s in-house medical services department. McCoy was transported to a local hospital where he was treated due to an inability to maintain oxygen saturation, but his condition declined. He was placed on a ventilator and later died.

As with the two previous inmate deaths from the prison, the BOP reported McCoy had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions listed by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention for developing more severe COVID-19 disease.

McCoy was serving a 121-month sentence for possession of child pornography and had been at the facility since Sept. 6, 2017.

FCI Elkton is a low-security facility that currently houses 2,040 male offenders with an adjacent Federal Satellite Low (FSL) that houses 417 low-security male offenders.

All staff members at the prison have been ordered by the Columbiana County Health Department to self-quarantine at home, according to Joseph Mayle, president of the Law Enforcement Officers Union governing the majority of prison employees. The quarantine order came via a March 31 letter from health commissioner Wesley Vins, who said since individuals associated with the prison – presumably inmates – have tested positive for COVID-19, personnel must maintain self-quarantine protocol, with all travel and visitation prohibited except for work duties at the facility.

The employees were ordered to not leave their home unless going to work or obtaining medical treatment, not to use public transportation, to have no visitors to their homes, to wear a mask for any medical appointment and around their family members at home and other hygiene measures.

According to Mayle, three staff members have tested positive for the virus, but he was not at liberty to say if they are hospitalized.

Mayle says in addition to the three inmate deaths, 18 inmates are in quarantine, 82 are in isolation after showing symptoms and 20 are hospitalized, although he declined to identify at which medical facilities.

The BOP website indicated Sunday that seven inmates at Elkton had tested positive but did not list a number for staff members testing positive.

“A lot of staff are anxious. They’re angry. We’re now working 12 (hours) on, 12 (hours) off,” Mayle said, due to the high number of hospitalized inmates, since even those on a ventilator must be in control of a corrections officer at all times.

Among other concerns, Mayle says he has an issue with the BOP not providing paid emergency leave to those staff members off work from COVID-19, who instead must use their allotted sick leave.

“Even when we’re forced to work, we don’t mind doing our job. But, if they’re putting us in a dangerous situation, and we get sick, they make us use our own leave. There have been laws passed, but they’re excluding us from all of it,” Mayle said.

The BOP has hired about 40 new staff members in the past year, and Mayle said many of those have not yet accumulated 14 days of sick leave to use if they are forced into a two-week quarantine.

“We’re fighting it,” he said, but pointed out that will be a long process which won’t help workers in the short term.

The warden and administrative staff at Elkton are doing everything they can in the COVID-19 situation, he said, putting the blame on the BOP for staff members’ plight. Mayle is also concerned about the danger to staff members’ families, saying, “Any day I go to work, I know I’m putting my life on the line, but at no time did I know I might be bringing that home to my family.”

Within a few weeks, he said, “We’ll be without PPE gear. That’s not up to the warden. That’s up to the regional director (to ensure is in place). They put in the order. If we get it, we get it.”

He says they initially had five test kits for nearly 2,500 inmates, saying, “It’s a joke.”

Calls to the Elkton facility were unanswered Sunday. An email was left for comment with no reply at this time.

Also concerned about what is happening at the Elkton facility is one mother whose son is incarcerated there and set for release later this summer. Their identities are being withheld for this article.

Although her son is in his 30s, unlike the other three elderly inmates who died from the virus, this mother said that, like those victims, he has a chronic health condition she fears could make him particularly susceptible.

“He called me concerned and asked, ‘Did you hear there was a death?’ Then there was another one,” she said with fear in her voice. “He’s just a little nervous because they’re just handing out masks. They don’t have all the testing they need. It’s just a big Petri dish. I asked if he was able to use sanitizer and he was able to get a little from the commissary.”

She continues, “Sometimes, the inmates get lost in the shuffle, but (prison officials) want to make sure everyone is being treated and cared for and getting what they need. It’s not just the inmates. They want to keep the workers safe as well, and the community when (prisoners) are released.”

Both mother and son are holding out hope this week might bring some good news after U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prison officials to step up efforts to release inmates at three prisons – including Elkton – where outbreaks of coronavirus have been seen.

Barr has suggested home confinement, and this mother said her son will return home down south if released early. He is serving a drug-related sentence and she believes he will qualify as one of the nonviolent offenders being considered for release.

But, so far, she said, he has not heard of any such release.

“I’m hoping by Monday he’ll get word from his counsel on how they’re moving prisoners into quarantine so they can be released. He’ll come back here. He’ll be here at home. This has been a long, long journey,” she said.

A video received Sunday night by the Business Journal and shown on CBS News Monday morning purportedly was recorded from inside the prison by an inmate wearing a hospital mask.

In the video, the man talks about the on-going COVAID-19 crisis and how it is affecting inmates, at one point pulling a blanket from another male lying in bed, with a dangling face mask, who he says, “Can’t even breathe.”

Saying he is “clean” from the virus himself, with only a year to go on his sentence, this narrator claims, “These (inmates) in here dying left and right.”

At some points, he removes the mask while making his points.

The video is laced with profanity, and having not yet proven its veracity, the Business Journal has decided not to publish it in its entirety.

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Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.