Brandon Baxter complained to a Cleveland newspaper that the halfway house where he lives was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. He was then shipped back to prison, just as the virus is starting to rip through the state's prison system.
The story begins in March, when Baxter told the Cleveland Plain Dealer how he and others at Oriana House were reacting to the outbreak. "We are all freaking out about this coronavirus situation," he said. "We are in here, eating shoulder-to-shoulder in a cafeteria, and then going out into the community."
Within days, federal marshals removed Baxter from the halfway house and deposited him in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown. When The Plain Dealer's Rachel Dissell asked why Baxter had been put behind bars, an Oriana official told her (in Dissell's paraphrase) that it is a federal "rule violation for any federal prisoner to speak to a member of the public with out permission" and that "Oriana House staff…is obligated as part of its contract to notify the prisons of violations. Prison authorities have discretion over what action to take."
Baxter himself says in a phone interview yesterday that neither Oriana nor the marshals nor anyone at the Youngstown institution has told him exactly why he's back there. After the story appeared, the halfway house started stripping him of privileges, leading him to gripe anxiously that they might as well just send him to prison. (He would hope, he says, that an institution dedicated to reintegrating prisoners would see that as a sign he needed to talk to a psychological pro, not that he needed to be locked up.) And after Oriana officials accused him of providing pictures to Dissell, he disabled his phone ("let's just say I gave them a phone with no battery or SIM card") before handing it over to investigators. That too was a violation of the rules.
Baxter reiterates his criticisms of Oriana House's coronavirus policies, noting that residents were still being sent to work in close quarters in offsite factories even as family visits were being restricted for fear of spreading the virus. He also says the halfway house's policies about inmate internet access—and about when it would allow inmates to leave the premises in search of a job—were grossly inadequate for its alleged goal of reintegrating prisoners into society. He accuses Oriana of blocking him from taking a better-paying job at Amazon because Amazon doesn't make it as easy to keep constant track of workers while on the job.
Baxter's fears about COVID-19 in Ohio lockups proved prescient. As the Marion Star reports, "the state's prison system has recorded 2,426 positive results among inmates." That's 21 percent of Ohio's confirmed cases. The Daily Beast points out that the "Marion Correctional Institution is now the biggest single-source hotspot of coronavirus cases in the United States….More than 70 percent of inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus."
At one Ohio penal institution, the Elkton Federal Correctional Institute, at least 59 inmates and 46 staff have been infected. (As The Cinncinnati Enquirer notes, "the full extent of the outbreak is unknown because only a small percentage of inmates at FCI Elkton have been tested.") The situation there is so dire that a judge has given the prison two weeks to "evaluate each subclass member's eligibility for transfer out of Elkton through any means, including but not limited to compassionate release, parole or community supervision, transfer furlough, or nontransfer furlough."
Fortunately for Baxter, the facility he is stuck in does not seem to have been hard hit. (He is aware of just two confirmed staff cases.) Baxter isn't "seeing anything to sway me from believing" the official numbers; he hasn't been seeing or hearing a lot of coughing, for instance. His prison is not one of the ones in which the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has instituted mass testing for COVID-19.
Baxter is near the end of an almost 10-year sentence for his role in an FBI-provocateur-triggered plot to blow up a bridge. He is scheduled to be released in October.