How one jailhouse lawyer is trying to fix his prison's broken COVID protections

ByMai Tran

At Toledo Correctional Institution in Ohio, a state with one of the highest rates of coronavirus deaths among incarcerated people, Johnnie Cook has been taking diligent notes. Since the prison reported its first positive case in early April 2020, Cook has been recording what he believes to be a litany of violations of CDC-recommended protocols for correctional facilities, from lack of consistent staff assignments to medical isolation not being made distinct from punitive solitary confinement. Now, Cook — a jailhouse lawyer serving a life sentence — will be representing himself in a class-action lawsuit he is filing against numerous Toledo Correctional administrators, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), for their failure to protect the health and safety of himself and his peers.

As of March 31, 2021, there are 115 current inmates at Toledo Correctional who have tested positive for COVID-19. The prison is home to about 850 inmates altogether. Cook himself tested positive in December 2020 after losing his sense of taste and smell and feeling fatigued. He was subsequently moved to a quarantine block where he was housed alone for 16 days, which he describes as “worse than being in solitary confinement.” He tells Mic that in solitary, inmates are allowed access to recreation, communication kiosks, and phone calls for an hour every day, but in quarantine he was only allowed out of his cell for 30 minutes per day and often had to choose between showering and making a phone call. He says that while he was there, he was issued just three cloth masks to use for two months, which he washed in a sink when he was not able to access laundry facilities. He also claims that guards did not complete regular rounds, that cells were not disinfected between occupants, and that he was denied access to mental health services despite being on the mental health caseload for depression. Cook says he was seen by a doctor once while in quarantine, who offered him medicine for a sore throat and cough. After a mandatory 14-day stay, Cook says he was let back into the general population without having received a negative coronavirus test.

Cook alleges that it’s this dereliction of duty by Toledo Correctional officials, enabled by state politics, that has led to so many inmates falling ill. But a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) disputed Cook’s claims, telling Mic over email, “Incarcerated individuals at all of Ohio’s facilities were provided with masks (at least nine masks over the past several months), along with instructions on how to properly wash the masks for reuse.” The spokesperson additionally said that incarcerated individuals are provided cleaning supplies and that it is their responsibility to disinfect cells if they are moved, while also paradoxically saying that staff members use an electrostatic sanitizing machine to disinfect cells between occupants.

The spokesperson also said that mental health staff make frequent rounds in the living areas, with appointments available upon request. And as for determining when individuals should be released from quarantine, the spokesman said that “an advanced level provider determines if an individual is recovered based on the individual's clinical presentation.”

Cook believes the prison is making quarantine conditions extremely punitive to keep reported numbers of positive cases low. He says inmates are reluctant to reveal their symptoms, after hearing rumors of limited mobility, overcrowding, and lack of available treatment in quarantine. “There are so many guys walking around sick,” Cook says. “They have no taste buds, no smell. People come around and do the temperature check, but if you don’t have a fever they don’t really pay attention to other signs.”

According to Time magazine, Toledo Correctional inmate David Easley experienced a loss of taste and smell last fall and tested positive shortly thereafter. He told Time that Toledo Correctional only tests inmates who report symptoms. An ODRC spokesperson disputed this, telling Time that prison doctors have “the authority to order as much testing as [they need] for clinical and/or surveillance reasons.” According to an ODRC COVID-19 testing plan that was provided to Mic by an ODRC spokesperson and last updated on Feb. 25, “surveillance reasons” basically refers to contact tracing; doctors can order certain tests because “living units may be presumed positive based on congregate setting interaction as indicated by contact tracing or review of cameras.” In that case, inmates might be quarantined in their living unit without ever receiving a COVID test. Cook says that he personally has not observed any attempts at contact tracing, despite there being well over 100 confirmed positive cases in the last year.

Separately, the family of Jason Goudlock, another inmate at Toledo Correctional who exhibited COVID symptoms, told local news station WTOL11 in November that Goudlock was seen by nurses who checked his temperature and oxygen levels but did not immediately administer a COVID test. Instead, Goudlock’s family said he was given a Tylenol and then quarantined with other inmates. For confidentiality reasons, an ODRC spokesperson was unable to confirm whether or not Goudlock eventually tested positive.

Protesters demonstrating in May 2020 against dangerous coronavirus conditions at the jail in Marion, Ohio, about 90 miles south of Toledo. [Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images]

The ODRC spokesperson did however dispute these accounts overall. In an email to Mic, the spokesperson said that “symptom screening at Toledo occurs three days a week” and “includes a temperature check, a pulse-oximeter check as well as screening questions.” When asked how often COVID testing occurs, the spokesperson referred back to the ODRC COVID-19 testing plan. While the plan details protocol for testing at intake, due to clinical indications, for intra-system and inter-system transfers, upon release, and for staff, it does not state how often mass COVID testing occurs for the general inmate population.

Cook alleges major failures on the cleanliness front, too, saying some cell blocks are completely devoid of soap and hot water. On one occasion, when Cook asked unit staff to provide soap for unsupplied washrooms, he says he was told to purchase it from the commissary himself, unless he was indigent. Inmates in Ohio are considered indigent if they earn or receive less than $12 a month; in that case, certain necessities are provided by the state. Prisoners are typically only allowed to visit the commissary once or twice a month, and when they do get there, they can only stock up so much: Cook says each person is limited to purchasing six bars of soap per visit. He adds that a bar of soap costs between $1.25 and $1.40, but many inmates receive less than $10 a month and must also budget for hygiene items such as deodorant, laundry detergent, and toothpaste.

And so the facility makes it incarcerated individuals’ responsibility to ward off a deadly virus that spreads like wildfire in close indoor quarters, despite the fact that many are already struggling to cover their basic needs. Add in the fact that inmates are also not allowed to trade, loan, or give away any of their personal belongings — so sharing soap could result in punishment — and conditions become even more inhumane.

An ODRC spokesperson tells Mic, “There is soap and hand sanitizer readily available in the units. If an individual does not have soap, they will be provided soap if they make the request to staff. There have not been any reported issues regarding hot water not being available.”

Regardless of the supply chain, there’s another big safety issue: rotating guard staff. As of March 31, at least 206 Toledo Correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19. Staff members unable to work have been temporarily replaced with members of the Ohio National Guard, increasing incarcerated people’s possibility of exposure as more workers move in and out of the prison. According to the ODRC COVID-19 testing plan, “Contact tracing throughout the pandemic has indicated that asymptomatic COVID-19 positive staff can be the initial source of transmission to the inmate population.”

“We can’t give them COVID, but they can give us COVID.”

Inmate Rufus Bowman told WTOL 11 that the National Guard “coming and going bothers us a little bit. You’ll see one national guardsman one day and there'd be another one tomorrow. I’ve never seen the same one more than once. We can’t give them COVID, but they can give us COVID.”

The alleged conditions at Toledo Correctional are not unique. Around the country, several prisons and jails have come under fire for failing to implement pandemic safety measures. In May 2020, the ACLU initiated a class-action lawsuit, which was formally filed in October, seeking injunctive relief for people at Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. As of March 2021, 30 inmates there have died of COVID and more than 1,200 have tested positive. The case’s outcome could provide an important precedent for lawyers and people litigating from inside prisons, like Cook.

Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, tells Mic that it has been difficult to get courts to agree that action needs to be taken. “To bring a lawsuit about conditions in a prison, you have to say the prison was deliberately indifferent to the risk you're facing,” she says. “A lot of courts have said that providing masks, even if they're inadequate and there aren't enough of them, is doing something, so they're not deliberately indifferent. What we're looking for is changes including better screening and testing, better social distancing and cleaning practices, better medical care when people are diagnosed, and other mitigation measures that are more effective than transferring people to home confinement or to other facilities that are less crowded.” Morris says class-action lawsuits regarding conditions in prisons can take several years to resolve. All the while, jailhouse lawyers risk retaliation from prison officials. While forming his case, Cook says he has been transferred in and out of limited privilege housing, a condition of confinement that typically entails removal from the general population, controlled movement, and limited access to privileges and prison services. He believes the move came because staff is targeting him for contacting local media and taking legal action.

“Anyone with education in the law who knows how to enforce constitutional rights is a threat to the institution,” Cook says. “Prisons hate threats.” The ODRC spokesperson pushed back on this, telling Mic that Cook violated facility rules “regarding disrespect to staff, tampering with the locking mechanism in his living area, and refusing to return to his cell,” and that’s why he was moved to limited privilege housing.

Jailhouse lawyers are already facing an uphill climb. They lack access to electronic court filings and must operate through snail mail, which can easily be delayed or lost. And during the pandemic, they’ve also been largely cut off from family members and other outside support, with many facility law libraries also closed due to distancing measures. “It’s really impossible to imagine practicing law in that way,” Rachel Meeropol, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-editor of the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, tells Mic. “But we’ve seen outbreak after outbreak, so standing up for themselves right now is really an emergency. A lot of the people in prison who I've talked to would love to be able to work with a lawyer, they just can't find anyone to represent them so they are forced to do it on their own.”

Cook became a jailhouse lawyer after being convicted of a double murder and aggravated robbery in 2010. Cook maintains his innocence and began legal research to build his appeal case from jail. As he gained more knowledge of the legal system, he started helping other inmates with their cases. He has previously litigated in federal court and successfully settled a suit against an Ohio correctional officer after alleging that officer used excessive force against him. Cook says the magistrate on the case even complimented his experience in the field.

“That has motivated me to go even harder to fight the right fight,” Cook says. “I have to continue to stand up for our rights that are supposed to be guaranteed. I feel that it is my responsibility to make our voice heard.”