Prison history repeats itself when it comes to coronavirus

As Mark Twain reportedly said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The line applies when we compare our current Covid- 19 miseries to the flu pandemic of 100 years ago. Between 1918 and 1920 that virus infected a third of the world’s 1.6 billion people and killed more than 20 million.

Ohio prisons are releasing inmates and making efforts to control social contact to slow the spread of Covid-19, news reports say. In autumn 1918 an Ohio prison superintendent authored poignant correspondence chronicling the mortal toll that year’s pandemic had taken within his institution.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

His prisoners had just returned, healthy, from a work project on the National Road, and he was trying to protect them. The federal government had asked Ohio to upgrade the Road to accommodate heavy military trucks, but from Zanesville to Cambridge the Road had to be completely rebuilt. Governor James M. Cox, a Progressive and publisher of the Dayton Daily News, favored using convict labor for the job, so he sent hundreds of prisoners, mostly African American, as the project’s laborers.

Ohio Penitentiary workers left just in time. In April, 1918, days after the first prisoners took the train to Guernsey County, more than 100 inmates in the institution fell ill with stomach and intestinal troubles. Prison Doctor O. M. Kramer concluded that unusually brightly colored contaminated jelly served at breakfast had sickened his patients. Within days 500 had been affected.

Dr. Kramer eventually diagnosed the illness as influenza. The state health department judged this flu to be extraordinarily contagious, and it was right: the prisoners had been infected in the early stages of the pandemic that came to be known as the Spanish flu.

Meanwhile, National Road convict workers avoided the illness. After about 70 somewhat younger prisoners from Mansfield Reformatory joined the project, a total of more than 300 prison laborers toiled in the summer heat.

Most of the road building wound down at the end of the summer, after a record-breaking 25 miles of brick pavement had been laid. But Mansfield Superintendent Thomas C. Jenkins in mid-September warned the prison Board of Administration that Reformatory prisoners were about to return from their work camp into deadly conditions. "The epidemic of Spanish flu has reached Mansfield, the report being that there are five hundred cases developed in the last three days," he wrote.

Inside his institution, the situation regressed as Jenkins feared. By Oct. 16, influenza cases had advanced to 41. Part of the chapel was converted for the sick who could not fit into the hospital. Five days later Jenkins counted 62 influenza cases. Inmate John Dennis became the first fatality. By Oct. 23 there were 155 cases of influenza in a total institution population of just over a thousand, and 14 prisoners were dead by the end of the month.

Jenkins himself fell ill. On Oct. 31 he reported he had improved considerably, but the situation was so grave that he did not know what to do. “Boys persist in throwing back the covers when they get too warm and of getting out on the sides of their cots. Slight as this exposure is, it seems to be sufficient to add to their troubles and death seems to be the only relief,” he wrote.

An experimental drug was deemed too little, too late. By mid-November fatalities stopped, with a total of 20 inmates lost to the Spanish flu.

The numbers inside Mansfield Reformatory echoed the experience outside. By summer, 1919, public health strategies and natural immunity largely reduced the pandemic in the United States. We can only hope that today’s public awareness, the heroic work of health professionals and similar natural effects make our current situation a less harsh tune, with a more pleasant rhyme.

Author Jeffrey Alan John is a Wright State University professor emeritus in the communication department. He is researching the National Road.