Ohio prisoners hope to view the eclipse but uncertainty lingers

The state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction issued no statewide policy regarding Monday’s totality, instead leaving the decision up to individual facilities.
Total Solar Eclipse - July 2, 2019
Total Solar Eclipse - July 2, 2019NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Creative Commons

Stacey, who is incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI) – one of the Ohio prison facilities that falls in the path of totality for the solar eclipse set to take place on Monday, April 8 – briefly believed the imprisoned would be given an opportunity to view the historic 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) via email. “Those answers were soon replaced by security concerns, not enough staff available, etc. In the end, I was told we will be locked down in our cells.”

Autumn (a pseudonym), who is also incarcerated at DCI, shared similar information, writing in an email that prison activities have been canceled for the day, with some staffers being allowed to depart work at noon. Autumn also said the timing of the total solar eclipse, which is expected to begin shortly after 3 p.m., falls after the prison yard is closed for the day and during a scheduled prisoner count, meaning everyone will be confined to their cells in the window of time when the moon passes in front of the sun.

“Some of the cells will be able to see it out of their window,” Autumn wrote. “Not me though.”

According to a spokesperson, the state’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) issued no statewide policy, leaving it up to individual facilities as to whether imprisoned people would be given the opportunity to view the eclipse, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to Ohio.

“Some institutions are working to provide viewing opportunities for their staff and incarcerated populations, depending on their location schedules,” said DRC communications chief Joellen Smith. “And some facilities did purchase viewing glasses for their staff and incarcerated populations, mostly purchased using commissary and vending revenue or employee activity dollars.” (Smith could not provide information on which facilities planned to provide viewing opportunities for the incarcerated, while calls to individual facilities were directed back to the main DRC offices.)

Jen (a pseudonym), who is incarcerated at Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) in Mansfield, Ohio, wrote in an email that scheduled classes had been canceled for the day, while the commissary in which she works would also be closed “because my boss lives in an area where they expect a lot of visitors/traffic, [and] she doesn’t want to deal with it.”

Writing less than a week before the eclipse, Jen expressed uncertainty about what ORW officials had planned for the day. “I’m not sure if we’re going to be locked down all day, or if they will just lock us down once it starts,” Jen wrote.

Ohio is not the only state where the question of who will be afforded the opportunity to take in the eclipse has been raised. In New York, six incarcerated individuals successfully sued the state and were granted the ability to watch the eclipse. The imprisoned people filed the lawsuit after New York announced it would lock down all of its correctional facilities the day of the celestial event. In a memo obtained by Hell Gate, which first reported on the issue, Daniel Martuscello III, acting commissioner of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, announced plans to institute a system-wide lockdown as a safety precaution during the eclipse – including of facilities that fell outside the band of totality.

“It’s interesting that people are looking to something either for entertainment value or some kind of spiritual connection, and that might bring some sense of collectivity, and the prison’s first response is to shut it down,” said Safear Ness, a writer and editor for the abolitionist publication In the Belly. “I’ve had many conversations with incarcerated people over the years about the importance of nature, the importance of earth, the importance of the sky. And the way prison itself takes away these things and puts you in this unnatural environment, where you’re disconnected from the very things that rejuvenate our humanity.”

And while some prison facilities in Ohio might grant the incarcerated the opportunity to view the eclipse, Ness reminded that even this is only a brief reprieve. “It’s important to remember that after that, these people are going back to a cell and not [home] with their families,” said Ness, who stressed that the prison industrial system is fundamentally designed to make the incarcerated feel less valued and valid as people. “I don’t know what people think out here sometimes about prisons, but these are not places of rehabilitation. These are not places that help people get back in touch with their humanity or prepare them to be better human beings.”

Stacey echoed this idea in their email, writing that even in this instance the incarcerated are being viewed as “less desirable,” or somehow less deserving than others who will be afforded the opportunity to view the totality.

“Considering the fact that the solar eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event … it would have been a great privilege for us to see it,” they wrote. “Hopefully, in the near future we will be considered worthy of … events such as this.”

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