‘I couldn't see the actual eclipse, just the darkening of the sky’

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined to issue a statewide policy regarding Monday’s totality, preventing many incarcerated Ohioans from witnessing the celestial event.
Ohio Reformatory for Women
Ohio Reformatory for WomenWikimedia Commons

In the days and weeks leading up to the solar eclipse, those incarcerated within the band of totality in Ohio were generally kept in the dark by prison officials.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined to issue a statewide policy related to the eclipse and instead left the decision up to individual facilities, some of which failed to convey information to prisoners with any sense of clarity.

In the days before the eclipse, Matter News exchanged emails with three Ohioans incarcerated at either Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI) or Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) in Mansfield, none of whom could offer a definitive answer as to whether they would be afforded the opportunity to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event. “I spoke with a few staff members here several weeks ago and their answers were, ‘Well, maybe…’ or ‘It’s a possibility,’” wrote Stacey (a pseudonym).

Ohio was not the only state where the question of who among the incarcerated would be able to take in the eclipse surfaced. In New York, a group of inmates successfully sued the state and were granted the ability to witness the event. 

The incarcerated Ohioans we exchanged emails with weren’t as fortunate.

Writing a few days after the totality, Stacey said she and the other DCI prisoners were confined to their cells in the hours the celestial event took place. No eclipse glasses were distributed, and the effects of the totality were visible to her only in the way the light temporarily faded to black outside, in addition to the eerie shadows it created on the walls.

“While looking out of my window, I could witness the darkness that enveloped our institution and the surrounding areas,” wrote Stacey, who added that the birds continued to chirp even as the prison lights kicked on, triggered automatically by the midday darkness. “But the coolest thing about it was the way the shadows of buildings appeared on the concrete. The shadows looked almost fluorescent, like they were not real. Almost cartoonish even.”

Jen (a pseudonym), who is incarcerated at ORW, described a similar experience, writing that officials altered the daily schedule in such a way that it limited any opportunities the prisoners might have had to view the eclipse. Normally, Jen wrote, count occurs daily at 4 p.m. But on the day of the eclipse, lunch was served as “grab and go” in order to expedite service and all non-emergency movement was halted by 1:30 p.m. A count was then conducted at 3 p.m., at which point, Jen wrote, all of the prisoners were required to be in their bunks “to ensure that the entire population was … not at a window [or] outside during this time.”

“I am in a small dorm/room that has its own windows. But due to the orientation of the building, I couldn’t see the actual eclipse, just the darkening of the sky,” wrote Jen, who added that when she was incarcerated at DCI during the 2017 partial eclipse, viewing glasses were distributed and accommodations were made for prisoners to partake. “It would have absolutely been feasible to allow us to watch [the total eclipse] and not interrupt normal count. … This was basically a once in a lifetime event, and although incarcerated, we are still human and should be allowed some liberties.”

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