While COVID-19 has impacted thousands of people across Ohio, the virus has hit Ohio’s incarcerated people especially hard. So much so that early in the pandemic, two of Ohio’s state prisons were considered to be in the top-10 coronavirus hotspots in the country.
The Ohio Transformation Fund (OTF) is a collaborative fund designed to advance structural changes in Ohio’s criminal justice system to improve health and well-being in the state. When the COVID-19 virus reached Ohio in early 2020, the OTF began supporting its grantees and grassroots allies to find ways to significantly reduce incarcerated populations in Ohio’s prisons, jails, and detention centers.
One way in which the organization did this was with their in-kind partner, Just Leadership USA, to establish a public-policy advocacy campaign called Compassion Over Cages. The intent of the campaign is aimed at establishing emergency management plans to protect the health, safety, and dignity of incarcerated people in Ohio in the event of public health or environmental emergencies.
Even before the nation’s correctional facilities showed COVID-19 infection rates more than 150 times higher than the general population, they were in a state of crisis. Despite a National Emergency declaration in March 2020, surveys in early April revealed prisons that responded had no real plan to deal with the outbreak, and in fact, many prisons do not have plans in place to deal with any kind of emergency.
Unlike most institutions, such as nursing homes and schools, correctional facilities are not required to have an emergency management plan focused on those in their care for accreditation, despite housing some of the most vulnerable populations.
Compassion Over Cages is intended to establish state-level, statewide emergency-management plans, and also could include the establishment of local-level plans to protect people in incarceration. These plans would benefit any incarcerated person in a publicly or privately run state prison; a county or regional jail; a state or local juvenile detention; a halfway house, alternative detention facility, or other state-run or state-funded locked facility.
Today, the Compassion Over Cages campaign is being led by the host organization, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries.
Over the past year, OTF and supporting partners have experimented with numerous types of campaigns and actions to gain the attention of state policymakers and to get significant reductions in incarceration. In early 2020, OTF grantees coordinated a rally and ‘die-in’ at the Ohio Statehouse to draw attention to incarcerated Ohioans who were neglected by the state government during the pandemic.
As a funding collaborative, OTF works with partners throughout Ohio to reduce the size and racial disparity of incarcerated populations. Since its inception in 2015, the organization has regranted nearly $4.5 million to support people most affected by the justice system. Funding from the HealthPath Foundation will help to support OTF’s continued decarceration advocacy efforts.