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COVID behind bars: Former inmate Austin Lynner of Cuyahoga Falls shares his story

His coronavirus diagnosis while incarcerated had a deep effect on both him and his family.

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — "When I had COVID, there was no PPE. There was no social distancing."

That's because Austin Lynner was in prison, serving the last year of a six-year sentence for aggravated robbery and theft. It was two months into the pandemic.

"I was a recreational porter," he continued. "I interacted with a thousand people while this pandemic was going on, and then shortly after, I got sick."

Lynner kept it to himself. Things are different in prison. Inmates are on a tightly structured schedule. If you miss work detail, meals, or any schooling, you lose "points."

"If you complain, they don't do anything for you," Austin added. "They just put you in a different cell."

Corrections officers often treat inmates who are sick as "malingerers" or "fakers". Like many, they didn't understand the pandemic either.

Even though he felt sick, Lynner didn't even tell his parents. He didn't want to worry them, but he got worse.

"When the loss of taste and loss of smell occurred, I ... was like, 'Oh yeah, I have COVID.'"

Austin finally spoke up.

"I didn't want to tell them at first, but I felt like I had to," he remembered. "I said, 'Look, mom and dad, I'm really sick. I don't know what's going on with me, but I'm really sick.'"

Lynner's family was anxiously awaiting his release, scheduled for March 2021. The pandemic added to the normal stresses of having a child in prison.

Dad Brian remembers when he got the call about his son having COVID.

"We couldn't do anything for him," Brian said, "which is the hardest thing for a parent to accept, that you can't help your child."

The Lynners could only wait. According to Brian, the pressure mounted.

"[Austin] was very lethargic, constantly exhausted, unable to get out of bed, unable to eat," he remembered. "The other symptom he had were just the constant body aches that were so severe at night that he couldn't sleep.

"We were worried around the clock for him. When we didn't hear from him for a couple days, then the nervousness in the sense of anxiety or fear would go through the roof."

They thought they may have lost their son to COVID-19. While in quarantine, Austin rode it out.

"[I] waited in my cell maybe five to seven days before I started feeling a little bit better again."

In time, he fully recovered, and earlier this year was released from the Toledo Correctional Institution. Austin got his vaccination about a month ago, and says those who are still behind bars are split on getting the shot.

"People are like, 'I don't know what that is, I dont know what it does,'" he explained. "I can understand that because of past vaccinations and things that have happened, but at the same time, everybody needs to get vaccinated just to help this process along."

Now home and working full-time, Austin and his family are moving forward with life. He wants everyone to remember people who are in prison are still people, and their COVID battle continues.