Kansas prisons prepare for possible second coronavirus outbreak behind bars
photo by: Nomin Ujiyediin/Kansas News Service
LAWRENCE — As an inmate at the Wichita Work Release Facility with only a few months left on his sentence, Timothy Lesher enjoyed freedoms that many in prison don’t. He was a line cook at a Wichita restaurant and bought saline solution from Walmart to clean his CPAP machine, which helps him breathe at night.
But after a few dozen inmates and employees at the facility tested positive for COVID-19 in April, Lesher and about 200 other men were moved to the Lansing Correctional Facility in northeast Kansas. It was supposed to increase social distancing among the Wichita inmates by putting them in a larger facility.
The bus ride to the new prison was overflowing, Lesher told his wife, Dee Lesher. And by that point, Lansing already had one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country.
Kansas topped 20,000 coronavirus cases this month, fueled by a dramatic increase in positive test results. The Kansas Department of Corrections said it is taking precautions against what seems to be an inevitable increase behind bars, keeping restrictions on family visits and continuing to encourage hand-washing and mask-wearing among inmates and staff.
“Increased numbers in communities have us pretty concerned right now,” said Randy Bowman, executive director of public affairs at the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Yet Dee Lesher and an inmate at the Topeka Correctional Facility told the Kansas News Service that prisoners are not getting enough information or access to health care. Some aren’t wearing state-provided masks.
“I don’t feel this pandemic is being taken seriously enough by the prison,” an inmate at the state’s only correctional facility for women said in an email. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she said she was afraid of retaliation from prison staff. “I doubt if we’re ready for a 2nd wave.”
The Lansing prison has seen 946 cases overall, with four inmates and two staff members who died. Facility-wide testing revealed about half of the men incarcerated there were positive for the virus, the majority of them asymptomatic.
During the outbreak in Lansing, which the corrections department announced was contained in June, Timothy Lesher had to wear the same dirty clothes day after day. His wife said he told her he was only allowed to bring two sets of clothing to Lansing from Wichita, and wasn’t able to do laundry. He and other men from the Wichita facility were fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three meals a day.
“He’s scared. I’m scared for him,” she said. “I’m scared for the other prisoners.”
Her husband told her it’s still hard for inmates to get their questions answered by staff. And many inmates aren’t careful about wearing masks or washing their hands.
“It’s like a zoo,” she said. “Because they have no clue. It’s frustrating.”
The Topeka Correctional Facility, which houses women, has had 11 cases of COVID-19.
The inmate who spoke on condition of anonymity says she often goes days without soap in her bathroom, despite telling officers that they haven’t been ordering enough. She also said inmates have also been unable to get their regular dental cleanings during the pandemic.
Bowman with the Department of Corrections countered that there is adequate soap, and noted that non-urgent dental services have been paused to limit possible virus exposure.
The inmate also brought up that two staff members in the prison had gone to a bar in Topeka that later was found to be a site of a COVID outbreak. Without saying how she knew, the woman said those staffers were told to quarantine only seven days before returning to work. The standard is 14 days.
Bowman confirmed that a staff member in one of the facility’s dorms recently tested positive. The whole dorm was quarantined and all of the inmates living there were tested, with no other positive results. Staff members who may have been exposed to the virus often don’t know until days later, he said, which is why the two who visited the Topeka bar were only told to quarantine for a week after they found out.
He added that as the state has mostly reopened, the department has been encouraging its employees to be “overly cautious” and wear masks outside of work.
“Like every other citizen in the state of Kansas, they’re probably wanting to do a little bit more in their private lives,” he said.
Failing grades for Kansas, U.S. prisons
Last month, a nonprofit that researches prisons and advocates for criminal justice reform released a report card for how state prisons and jails have handled the pandemic.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s letter grade was based primarily on whether it had released people or tested a large number of prisoners.
Kansas received an F+, alongside 27 other states. Only nine states got the highest grade: a D-.
Kansas received high marks for providing masks to all of its staff and inmates, Wanda Bertram with the nonprofit said, but the state received low grades for not ordering the release of prisoners to promote social distancing.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas unsuccessfully sued the state in April, asking for the release of thousands of people who were in prison for minor crimes, nearing the end of their sentence or more vulnerable due to age or medical conditions. In the end, the state only released six inmates on house arrest.
Bertram said at the time the report card was compiled, her organization did not have information on whether Kansas had tested its staff. The Department of Corrections announced it would test all staff in May.
The Kansas Department of Corrections said one of the primary measures it’s taking against the virus is consistently screening staff and others who come and go from the prisons for coronavirus symptoms and elevated temperatures. However, in many cases, people may be infected and asymptomatic, as the Lansing outbreak proved. The department is also testing people who may have been exposed to staff cases that have emerged in the past few weeks.
Bowman also said the state is looking at ways to spread out dormitory housing, which comprises about one-third of the state’s prison beds.
It helps that the population has declined by a few hundred in recent months, partially because courts have been unable to conduct most criminal proceedings like trials and sentencing hearings, during the pandemic.
Kansas prisons had been at or over capacity for years. Bertram noted that the population decline did help Kansas compared to other states when it comes to handling the pandemic.
Still, Bertram said, prisons and jails are “incredibly dangerous” and have been hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks throughout the U.S. because of the close quarters and poor health care.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.