By Jenna Thomas
When the pandemic struck, jails and prisons became the epicenter of the outbreak. Back in April, nearly 80% of all people inside Marion County Correctional Institution tested positive for the virus. Ohio currently ranks 6th in the nation for the total number of cases among incarcerated individuals, but these high rates are mirrored all across the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the families of those incarcerated began to worry for the health and safety of their loved ones.
Elizabeth Bonham, a graduate of CSU’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and now an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio describes this danger among her clients.
“Where does a virus like this spread? In a confined space where people are jammed in and they’re not allowed to leave, their bodies are subject to the control of someone else, they can’t practice hygiene, they can’t practice distancing. It’s a very, very dangerous environment.”
Bonham and her team filed lawsuits against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who contracts with Ohio jails and prisons to detain immigrants. She argued that people incarcerated for civil offenses should not be put in danger of the virus because of these non-criminal actions.
“Nobody should have to get sick with such a dangerous disease, absolutely nobody. But these are people who are being held on an alleged civil offense. They’re immigration detainees. They’re not being accused of a crime,” Bonham stated.
This argument resulted in the release of 21 people from the Butler County jail in Hamilton, Morrow County jail in Columbus, Seneca County jail in Tiffin, and Geauga County jail in Chardon.
Just as the pandemic persists, so does Bonham’s work.
“I’m heartbroken for the many folks we couldn’t help,” Bonham said. “This is still happening to people, we’re still fighting, and I always maintain hope that our elected officials will do the compassionate, commonsense thing and further incarcerate.”