COLUMBIANA CO., Ohio (WKBN) – With distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine beginning in Ohio, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the state is asking Gov. Mike DeWine to prioritize people who are currently incarcerated.

People living and working in other congregate settings, like nursing homes, have priority for the COVID-19 vaccine in DeWine’s roll-out plan. However, those who are working and incarcerated in Ohio’s prisons were not included in the plan.

The ACLU says prisoners and staff have the same difficulties with social distancing and staying safe from the virus as those in nursing homes. It argues they should be among the first to be vaccinated — not just for their own safety, but to minimize community spread.

Elkton federal prison in Columbiana County was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

Joseph Mayle, president of the union that represents corrections officers at Elkton, said, at one time, there were as many as 70 inmates who ended up in the hospital with the virus.

He said social distancing and other safety measures are difficult to maintain inside the prison.

“We’re dealing with approximately 1,500 inmates. We’re all in close quarters day in, day out. It’s not like there’s a lot of room inside of a prison for us to social distance. It just doesn’t happen that way inside of a prison, so PPE gear can only do so much.”

Mayle said corrections officers are concerned about carrying COVID-19 home to their families. He hopes many union members will get the vaccine, and he plans to get one himself as soon as it’s available to him.

He said it’s especially important for staff members to be prioritized for the vaccine so they don’t cause virus spread within the prison.

“COVID-19 doesn’t start inside the compound or inside of an institution. It starts with us introducing it onto the compound to the inmates. The faster that we can get vaccines, I think the better and faster we can eliminate the possibility of us getting sick and actually bringing it inside the prison.”

Mayle said he couldn’t speak to whether or not he believes inmates should be vaccinated before other citizens.

In a meeting last week, he learned vaccines will be coming to Elkton soon. It will first be distributed to staff members in the health services department, then to the rest of the staff and lastly, to the inmates.

The vaccine will be taken on a voluntary basis and the timeline remains fluid.

According to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), 656 inmates at Elkton have tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost 1,500 inmates have been tested.

The BOP says there are currently three inmates and 19 staff members who currently have the virus.

Mayle said the worst part of the pandemic at Elkton happened from March to June.

Over 8,000 inmates in state prisons have tested positive since April, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction.

The state also reports 109 inmates have died from COVID-19, and nine probably died from it but the cause of their deaths is not confirmed.

Over 3,000 staff members in state prisons have tested positive for the virus. Seven of them have died from COVID-19-related illness.