Anxiety and hope filled Megan Bader as she made the list for potential early release from the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
The 25-year-old from Alliance cried.
“When I was sentenced, (Stark County Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione) actually had sentenced me to 30 months with no (early release),” she said Friday during a telephone interview from the Stark County Jail. “So when they told me I made the list I was extremely ecstatic.”
Bader didn’t want to get her hopes up.
She pleaded guilty in 2018 to a non-violent offense, a third-degree felony grand theft charge.
The case stemmed from her boyfriend’s firearm. She said she took it away and gave it to somebody else, who sold the gun.
Later she violated probation amid drug usage, and she was sent to prison in February.
Working in her favor for release was her pregnancy as well as the prison system’s efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus by making more room within institutions.
But it was ultimately up to Forchione, who granted her early release recently during a hearing conducted by video link, a regular practice during the pandemic.
Gov. Mike DeWine wrote Forchione and asked him to consider Bader’s early release as the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction tries to reduce its prison population so inmates and staff can practice social distancing and other health precautions.
Most of roughly 130 male and female prisoners released early during the pandemic had their sentences reduced by a few weeks or months and up to several months.
Bader isn’t on that formal list but her case falls under the general category.
Violent offenses and sex crimes are excluded. No charges more serious than a third-degree felony.
Common charges include drug possession, theft, failure to comply, unauthorized use of a vehicle and receiving stolen property.
Since March 24, the state’s prison population has been reduced by 1,379, Annette Chambers-Smith, the ODRC’s director, said during DeWine’s press briefing Thursday.
COVID-19 cases have been widespread at some prisons, resulting in the deaths of some inmates and staff.
Prison population also has been reduced to its lowest level since 2006 through the parole board and from local courts granting judicial releases outside the ones on the formal list, Chambers-Smith said.
Diversion programs are another method, she added.
New male prisoners also are not being accepted at ODRC facilities due to the coronavirus, said JoEllen Smith, an agency spokeswoman.
Those inmates remain at local jails, including more than a dozen in Stark County.
“We want to do it safely,” Chambers-Smith said of reducing the inmate population to roughly 49,000.
Across the state
Prisoners on the emergency release list are from across the state, including Holmes, Portage, Columbiana, Montogomery, Franklin, Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Muskingum, Richland, Mahoning, Belmont, Jefferson, Delaware, Guernsey and Ashland counties.
However, with the exception of a few commutations by DeWine in high-profile cases, Bader’s sentence has been reduced more significantly than most COVID-related cases — her official release date was July 2022, according to the ODRC’s website.
“Before, I really didn’t think I had a drug problem,” Bader said. “I was belittling everything, I was only smoking marijuana, so I thought it wasn’t a big deal, I wasn’t hurting anyone.”
But “actually going to prison, that’s an experience that really changes you.”
Early releases are based on various factors, including:
‒ Whether an inmate is more than 60 years old or pregnant.
‒ How close the prisoner is to finishing their sentence (the governor’s office sometimes uses 90 days as a standard).
Forchione said DeWine’s request was a factor but he made the decision to release Bader independently.
“With the high positive (COVID-19) numbers coming out of the prison, we certainly don’t want to affect a new life,” he said of Bader’s baby. “And I kept in mind this is a non-violent crime, and I believe I sent a message.”
“She has a major drug problem,” Forchione added, noting the defendant had a clean prison record. “Common sense tells me we need to treat it.”
Bader will be released into a treatment facility when space is available.
She said she understands why the public might question whether she’s deserving of freedom.
“I wasn’t really taking things seriously,” she said. “I just thought I could skate through everything without getting in trouble and everything would be fine … and that wasn’t the case at all.”
Bader said she’s aware of negative comments on social media on the subject of prisoner release. Even other inmates told her she hadn’t served long enough to warrant release.
Motivating her to a cleaner life is the infant she’s expecting in September as well as a daughter and stepson, Bader said.
“I definitely want to prove that I can be the mom that I am supposed to be, that I was born to be,” she said. “I’m very motivated to put all of this behind me and do the best I can.”