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A 2-year sentence; a life-threatening virus | Ohio prisoner released from Marion Correctional minutes after learning he's COVID-19 positive

A Sandusky man and other families tell of fear and a lack of information as inmates fight for their lives inside the Ohio prison.

TOLEDO, Ohio — Tuesday morning, Kelli Gulick rushed across the Marion Correctional Institution parking lot to hug and kiss her son, Nico.

It was a reunion she dreamed about for two years.

But he had a disturbing message for his mom and her fiance.

"They just told me I tested positive for that coronavirus on the way out the door," he tells his family on a home video sent to 11 Investigates.

Marion Correctional is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 2,200 inmates and guards at the prison have tested positive for the life-threatening virus.

"I watched a man fall down and break his teeth. They came in and just let him go. He fell down multiple times. He couldn't eat food. They told him to just drink water," Nico Phanthavon says after returning home. He was serving time for aggravated assault and drug offenses.

He believes he was actually infected in the winter and is still carrying traces of the virus. In early February, he had a severe cough and fever, just like so many of his fellow prisoners.

Multiple studies now indicate that recovered patients still are testing positive. Some viruses leave their signatures on a victim for the rest of their lives.

Ohio prison spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the state has been aggressive, testing all the Marion and Pickaway Correctional prisoners. In an email, she added an astounding statistic - 95 percent of Marion inmates who tested positive had no symptoms. 

Nico was tested a week ago and feels better than he has entire life, he says. He hopes the symptoms will not reappear.

CELL PHONE VIDEO | Nico Phanthavon is released after learning he's COVID-19 positive

He says as he and three other prisoners were being processed to leave on Tuesday, they asked for their test results. 

"One of the sergeants said, 'You don't know?' He didn't know what was going on," Nico says. "They walked away and came back and said all you guys tested positive, so good luck."

Nico's mom, Kelli Gulick, is emotional about her son being pushed out the door - no paperwork and no medical advice about what to do next.

"I thank God that he's released, but how do you do that to someone? A human being," she asks.

There are now about 4,000 inmates infected in Ohio prisons. There is nowhere to hide when your cellmate is coughing.

"Any time you have congregants living together - once COVID-19 gets inside the doors, it spreads and it spreads very significantly," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said earlier this week.

RELATED: Ohio Coronavirus Update | 14,694 total cases reported

RELATED: Prison COVID-19 cases puts Marion County at more confirmed cases than any other Ohio county

RELATED: Protesters at Lucas Co. Jail say non-violent offenders should be released until pandemic ends

Concerned Families

Many families and inmates reached out to me about their fear and anxiety.

"These are husbands. They’re children, sons, daughters, fathers. We're not asking you to do anything other than what is right, what is humane," Chazidy Bowman says.

Her husband, Rufus, is eligible for judicial release from Toledo Correctional at the end of this year. She wants the state to consider letting him go now.

Karl Willis was the subject of last year's Guilty Without Proof investigation by the 11 Investigates team. He says he's innocent of murder, and he's terrified of dying. As an asthmatic, he believes he is being given a death sentence.

He called me last week, desperation in his voice.

"I lost my mom, my dad, my grandmother, and now this. I would have been a great father. I already was," Willis says.

Credit: WTOL
Karl Willis scoffs at what the state says was his motive - $200 to kill Maurice Purifie. "What could a 13-year-old even be involved with that you would want to do something to him for $200? That's a child, man," Willis says. “You’ve got to have some kind of demonic spirit if you want to go hurt a child. I had nephews and nieces that age.”

Melissa, who did not her last name used, said her fiance is scared. He's an inmate at Toledo Correctional and has pre-existing conditions. Multiple people, including Nico Phanthavong, said that many prisoners are not getting their regular medicine, unless they have a fever.

Melissa says her fiance lies awake at night, listening to the coughing, wondering what is in the air.

"We're out here and actually have the opportunity to maneuver around the virus, but in there, it's just a matter of when it gets in, who gets it, and how many people are going to suffer," she says.

In Nico's case, he says there were more than 100 men in his dorm, sleeping within two feet of others.

He believes most inmates still do not know if they are positive. The only official word the men had, he says, was from seeing a story on the news.

Credit: Submitted photo
Nico Phanthavon said he believes most of the men in Marion Correctional Institution don't know whether they have COVID-19 or not.

He says the men knew it would infect them at some point.

"It was like a 50-50 chance. I'm going to get this and make it through or I'm going to get this and die from it," he says. "That's the cold hard truth, either you're going to make it or you're not. I just hope I'm one of those who makes it."

At this point, Nico will quarantine in his room for two weeks. His thoughts are still with the men at Marion. Many are bad men, but they are men who could be facing a death sentence.

"When we started to get sick, we realized we had to take care of each other, help each other clean. When the institution stopped giving us commissary and feeding us three times a day, we realized that we were all each other had."

He and the other families want the state to know that inmates are not animals. They are trapped like animals, but most are trying to do their time and move on. 

Inmates now have their meals reduced to twice a day. Some are not getting their medicines or being told the truth. They are hoping their stories will force the state to do more to improve the conditions.

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