John E. Dawson Jr.

John Dawson, a prison worker at the Marion Correctional Institution, was the first Richland County resident to die of COVID. The 1982 Ashland High School graduate's death was announced on April 8.

COLUMBUS – Workers with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction issued a press release Tuesday morning that stated the lives of staff and inmates are at an unacceptable level of risk.

Members of SEIU District 1199 also say they are not being provided with the proper personal protective equipment and that ODRC administrators and Governor Mike DeWine have continued to fail to hear their concerns. 

“We have reached 86 confirmed and probable inmate deaths within ODRC institutions and five staff members have lost their lives,” said Joshua Norris, Executive Vice President for SEIU District 1199.

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Richland County's first COVID fatality was John Dawson, a 55-year-old Mansfield resident whose death was announced on April 8. Dawson, a 1982 Ashland High School graduate, was a corrections officer at the Marion Correctional Institution.

“Union members who provide healthcare and other vital services at ODRC facilities dedicate their careers to the health, safety, and wellbeing, of inmates and the public," Norris said. "We are calling on ODRC administrators, OhioMHAS administrators, Ohio Department of Youth Services administrators, and Governor Mike DeWine, to act now with urgency on behalf of staff at these institutions, including allowing work from home status when possible and by providing additional protective equipment.”

Workers with ODRC institutions claim they are being provided with cloth facial coverings or surgical masks but are not being provided with N95 masks, which offer a higher level of protection against COVID19. N95 masks are being provided at the discretion of administrators.

“These workers do not know who is positive in these facilities and who is not,” said Anthony Caldwell, Director of Public Affairs for SEIU District 1199. “It is impossible for staff members to protect themselves without further mitigation.

"More must be done to protect them – they are heroes on the frontlines but their voices are being disregarded.”

While shortages of PPE have occurred nationwide, staff members believe they are at a heightened risk due to potentially harmful management decisions within ODRC facilities, the press release stated.

“Having the proper protective equipment is of the highest importance. Staff members would be much more protected if they were properly equipped with N-95 respirators and face shields," Norris said. "Many entities are producing and even 3D printing face shields. We believe there is not a strong justification for having workers go without them.”

Medical experts continue to note the climbing number of cases in Ohio.

“We are also concerned by the decision to have Recovery Services staff return to ODRC institutions, as conditions are now more hazardous than when they began to work from home," Norris said. "With many safety concerns, large groups of inmates in quarantine, and nearly 100 lives lost, the health and safety concerns of these workers must be heard.

“Our members signed up to serve their fellow Ohioans but not to be casualties of a pandemic. We can’t forget them and we know that additional lives will be lost as this crisis continues. Workers with ODRC are demanding to be heard and their concerns must be taken seriously,” concluded Norris.

SEIU District 1199 leaders and Union members are calling on Governor DeWine and directors with the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to immediately re-evaluate their policies as they relate to COVID-19, the delivery of care and services, and the availability and use of effective personal protective equipment.

SEIU District 1199 represents health care workers and staff members who provide services on behalf of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. SEIU District 1199 also represents workers with ODMHAS Recovery Services and the Ohio Department of Youth Services.