Kansas prisons have some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country

More than 5,000 inmates and 975 prison staff have tested positive for the coronavirus.

by Nomin Ujiyediin, Kansas News Service

Leoti Masterson hasn’t seen her son, Jeff, since March. She used to visit him at the Winfield Correctional Facility once a week to play cards, reminisce and pray together, sometimes for hours at a time.

But when the pandemic started, Kansas prisons stopped allowing visitors as a coronavirus precaution. Now, Masterson makes do with daily phone calls no longer than 20 minutes.

“He’s my closest family member,” Masterson said. “So, yeah, this is hard.”

Yet suspending visits hasn’t kept the coronavirus from Kansas prisons. It was first detected at the Lansing Correctional Facility in early April. Cases have been found in staff and inmates at nearly every facility since.

More than 5,000 inmates have tested positive. The nonprofit news website The Marshall Project, which takes a critical look at the country’s criminal justice system, says that puts Kansas among the states with the highest infection rates in its prisons.

Out of roughly 2,800 prison workers in Kansas, 975 have tested positive for the virus. Twelve inmates and three staff members have died. Meanwhile, Kansas has yet to respond to requests to release inmates to reduce their chance of getting sick.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has instituted some policy changes to prevent the spread of the virus, including quarantining all positive inmates at Lansing, which has newer buildings with better ventilation.

The agency has also given cloth masks to all inmates and staff and tried various social distancing measures at prisons.

Still, some staff and inmates have said such measures are either ineffective or hard to enforce. And like other prison systems, the corrections department has not stopped transferring inmates between facilities.

Meanwhile, advocates for incarcerated people continue to say that releasing prisoners would alleviate some of the close quarters where it spreads most quickly — protecting both those inmates and the surrounding communities where staff live.

Corrections officials declined multiple requests for interviews and did not answer emailed questions. But in a statement, spokesperson Randy Bowman said the department was working closely with public health officials.

“We continue to coordinate our response to COVID-19 with officials at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to ensure all mitigation efforts are consistent with current public health practices,” Bowman said in an email.

Social distancing

Jeff Masterson, Leoti Masterson’s son, said he tested positive for the virus in August and was moved from Winfield to Lansing. In emails and letters, he said that inmates don’t always wear masks properly and some quarantined at Lansing claimed they no longer had symptoms even if they were still feeling sick.

“Everyone wants out of there and back to their relative normal,” Masterson said. “So inmates work the system.”

Masterson was moved back to Winfield after about two weeks. In early December, he was transferred to the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility.

At Winfield, where he usually serves his sentence, Masterson said the dining hall was closed, but inmates sit near each other to eat in residential areas. They have access to soap in bathrooms, but hand sanitizer, paper towels, bleach and vinegar are banned. Recreation is separated by floor, although he says people typically don’t wear masks and there are no social distancing rules.

People in other prisons have reported a similar lack of distancing. Mari Flowers, the mother of a woman in the Topeka Correctional Facility, said her daughter has been quarantined in a tent in the prison’s laundry room since she began her sentence at the end of October.

“They put these women in an impossible situation,” Flowers said. “They can’t even make it inside the prison.”

Flowers said her daughter, Jordan Fuller, had been tested for COVID nine times. Fuller’s quarantine has started over four times. Flowers said the prison was waiting for every new arrival to the prison — dozens of women — to all test negative at the same time before letting them into the main prison buildings.

“They don’t deserve to be treated that way. They’re already in a bad place. They put themselves there and they know that,” Flowers said. “But I just feel they need to take better care of these people.”

The corrections department did not respond to questions about the facility. The Topeka prison did not return a request for comment.

Jon-Wesley O’Hara is a corrections officer at Topeka, the state’s only women’s prison. Enforcing pandemic precautions is difficult, he said, now that the prison has been relaxing disciplinary measures that can sometimes delay early releases for good behavior. He said officers are left with little recourse when inmates refuse to wear masks.

“It is up to us to try to mitigate their decisions as much as possible,” O’Hara said. “We need to take this a lot more seriously.”

Kansas prisons have struggled with understaffing, which the pandemic has exacerbated. Officers have to miss work because they’re quarantining, taking care of children or working at other prisons that need the help. The ones who are left sometimes have to pull double shifts that can last as long as 16 hours. O’Hara said.

The corrections department offers extra pay for officers in COVID-positive units, but O’Hara said that for some employees, that extra money is approaching the state’s statutory limit for employee merit pay.

“This is a hard job,” he said. “It gets harder every day, and this is just another level of stress.”

When O’Hara’s roommate, who also works at the prison, tested positive for COVID, they had to stay home from work. O’Hara said he had to call his ex-wife to tell her he couldn’t see his children for Thanksgiving.

“That is the hardest thing in the world to not be able to see your kids,” he said. “You will never be able to replace that in-person contact.”

Clemency

Throughout the pandemic, criminal justice activists have advocated for the widespread release of people from prisons, jails and detention centers as the only effective way to socially distance. Jails and prisons in California, Michigan, New Jersey and other states released thousands of people over the course of the year.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a lawsuit to compel Kansas prisons to do the same. Leavenworth County Judge David King dismissed the suit. Gov. Laura Kelly’s office approved the release of only six people in May.

Since then, the ACLU says it has filed more than 90 clemency applications for Kansas prisoners with the state’s prisoner review board. About 30 of them are waiting for a decision from Kelly, but the applications haven’t been denied or approved. The organization still maintains that release is the best solution for COVID spread in prisons.

“The only way to make sure that the transmission rates go down,” said ACLU legal director Lauren Bonds, “is to make sure that people in prisons can observe the same protocols that we’re being told to observe out here in the community.”

Bonds said many of the clemency applications are for people who have a short time remaining on their sentences or have jobs, housing and family waiting for them on the outside. Their release, she said, could also mean reducing community spread in towns where many of the residents work at prisons.

“The consequences … are not limited to what will happen to inmates,” Bonds said. “This is a community health issue.”

In an email, a Kelly spokesman said the governor is still considering the requests.

“The Governor will consider every clemency request after she receives a full process of developing facts and with input from those affected,” he said in an email.

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at nomin (at) kcur (dot) org and follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
See more at https://www.kcur.org/news/2020-12-21/kansas-prisons-have-some-of-the-highest-covid-19-infection-rates-in-the-country
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Questionnaire from Rep. Jeff Pittman, candidate for state Senate, 5th District

Name and office sought
Rep. Jeff Pittman, seeking state Senate District 5, Democrat
http://www.votepittman.com

Age
49

Occupation and experience

I am currently a supply chain engineer at a software company. I have worked there applying algorithms, technology and industry best practices to save companies hundreds of millions of dollars, while enabling them to deal with major disruption and uncertainty.
I was formerly a big data technology consultant, focused on creating data intersections and analytics used to help drive insights into companies bottom lines. My wife and I also have a small business around property rentals.
Serving two terms as a state representative, my experience and education have helped position me well for handling the current state challenges around budgets, technology and working through the challenges of the pandemic.

Education

Graduated high school, Leavenworth High
Bachelors of Arts Degree from NCF
Masters in Engineering, MIT
Masters in Business Administration, Oxford University, UK

Organizations, clubs, groups to which you belong

VFW Post 56 Auxiliary Officer;
Honorary Member of American Legion Post 94;
Rotarian;
Criminal Justice Chair of the Leavenworth Chapter NAACP;
Member of the Lansing High School Site Council;
PTA;
Ducks Unlimited Leadership team;
Member Chamber of Commerce of Leavenworth/Lansing;
Member Chamber of Commerce of Bonner Springs/Edwardsville;
Member Chamber of Commerce of KCK ;
Board member of Unity in the Community;
Past board member of the Leavenworth County Humane Society;
Leavenworth Main Street Investor (Downtown development organization);
Parents As Teacher Advisory Board;
Member of Leavenworth County Mental Health Task Force;
Member of Kansas Information Technology Executive Council;
National Legislator of the year from Educational Theatre Association;
Kansas Legislator of the Year from Kansas Thespians;
Buffalo soldier award from the Local Buffalo Soldier Club;
Richard Allen Cultural Center member;
Leavenworth/Lansing Young Professional Club member;
Leavenworth County Historic Society member;
Traveling Youth Baseball 13-14 coach
Leavenworth-Wyandotte Caucus;
Democratic Military & Veterans Caucus;

Endorsed by:
Firefighters #64 Covering EMT and Firefighters in LVCO, WYCO and Edwardsville;
Fraternal Order of Police #4;
Fraternal Order of Police #40;
Kansas Mental Health Coalition;
Kansas Hospital Association;
KNEA Teachers;
KC Biz Pac of the Greater KC Chamber;
Main PAC;
3.14 Organization Promoting Science in Politics;
Equality Kansas;
Laborers 1290;
Operators 101;
IBEW Local 51;
UAW local 31;
AFL-CIO;
Kansas AFT;
SMART;
KSRA;
and more

Reasons for running

The state Senate needs a change. I have enjoyed my time as a state Representative and developed skills and understanding I can bring to this broader area, my home town area, in the state senate. We need more voices like mine of moderation and of solutions. I have fought for and will continue to build on a proven track record of supporting properly funded public education. During this time of crisis, we need proven, trusted, reliable leadership, and that’s what I bring. We need to make sure that people can go back to work, that they can reopen their businesses, and we need to do it so that everyone feels safe. From our manufacturing industries, to small businesses in our downtown. We need to make sure businesses have access to the capital they need to stay afloat, and we support workers getting back employed as long as they are safe, so they can provide for their families.

What are the three most important issues facing this district and how would you handle them?

One of the biggest issues facing us now is getting through this COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has hit our jobs and businesses hard. Making sure our citizens are safe, and balancing that with ensuring our economy gets ramped back up. Small business needs access to capital. Our schools are affected by it; our ability to provide for our families is affected by it; our socializing is affected by it. By working together we can recover from this and pandemic and move our economy forward. My professional background is in helping businesses find innovative solutions to challenges they are experiencing. I am uniquely qualified to help our local businesses navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic and get our economy thriving again.

As I talk to citizens at the door (at a distance), I also see affordable healthcare as a major challenge for our citizens who are not retired military. Whether it’s those on a fixed income facing increasing pharmaceutical costs or workers making minimum wage who can’t take care of their chronic conditions, healthcare costs are making access increasing difficult for many people. Rising healthcare costs drive workers from local businesses to bigger businesses that offer health insurance benefits—and that makes it harder to find stable workers in local businesses. An educated workforce is good for business. I stepped up before to ensure our education system was funded and provided every student an equitable education no matter their zip code. We face a new crisis as students go online for education during COVID. Students who are most at risk are even more at risk. Whether access to internet, quality of homelife, self-discipline or unfortunately abuse, we must work toward better solutions and be willing to flex our public education system.

Lastly innovation fuels growth. We need to encourage entrepreneurialism and business to business innovation. Collaboration between local businesses fosters cross-marketing and regional identity building. Unaffordable healthcare plagues many people. Simply stated, the Chambers of Leavenworth and KCK have jumped on board and understand that Medicaid expansion is a workforce development tool and infrastructure stimulus. We have given up $4 billion in federal funding over five years. It’s time to get past the politics in the Senate and move forward. Regarding fostering growth, the government should have bipartisan stability. We must foster innovation, show economic leadership and develop strategic long term plans in conjunction with local, state and federal partners.

If you are an incumbent, list your top accomplishments in office. If you are not an incumbent, what would you change if elected?

The state of Kansas was in a financial crisis with our credit rating dropping 3 times in 18 months during Governor Brownback’s tax experiment. I promised to put fiscally responsible measures in place to properly fund public education, support funding our KPERs promise to the people, supporting investment in roads and I kept that promise. I have served on the following committees: Veterans and Military Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, Publics Safety Budget, Joint Committee on IT, and the Information Technology Executive Committee. I have sponsored in my time over 18 bills, many bipartisan in nature. I was a key driver in the Cybersecurity Act creating a framework for security. I positioned amendments for COLA (cost of living adjustment) increases in KPERs repeatedly. I brought forward increased funding amendments to meet our federal special education funding requirements. I fought to ensure Corrections workers infected with COVID that died would have automatic death benefits for their families from workers comp. I repeatedly fought to get rid of the sales tax on food, and to allow itemization of tax deductions at the state level, even when taking the federal standard deduction. And being from Leavenworth, I introduced numerous bills, one of which ended up working in the budget to stablize lottery fund disbursement resulting in hundreds of thousands more each year to be used for military service organizations like VFW and American Legion, giving restitution to Native American veterans and being the first to introduce two bills that would start the process of bringing a new veterans home to Northeast Kansas.

Have you run for elected office previously? When, results?

Yes, I’m proud to have been elected in a general election twice for Kansas State Representative. My first term was in 2016 when I promised to reverse Governor Brownback’s tax experiment and we did so. I was then re-elected in 2018. Raising my family here with my wife Holly, we have been heavily involved in our community. I understand the unique needs of our area. I have worked on behalf of my constituents every day. I hope for your support as state Senator.

Leavenworth leads federal prisons in COVID-19 cases, and inmates’ families are worried

by Nomin Ujiyediin, Kansas News Service

The COVID-19 case numbers started to rise at the prison just this month, and family members of people who are incarcerated there say they’ve been told not all staff members or inmates wear masks.

For months, the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth avoided the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But that’s changed.

Leavenworth has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire federal prison system, with 206 inmates and five staff members with the virus. There are currently 1,594 people incarcerated at the prison.

Family members of Leavenworth inmates say that, like in other federal and state prisons, their loved ones are living in close quarters with other inmates and prison employees, not all of whom wear masks. The families allege medical staff can be inattentive and that inmates have no choice but to congregate closely around phones and showers because of the months-long restrictions on leaving their dorms or cells.

Amanda Karch is even worried about her boyfriend’s mental health.

“He says he’s depressed. He’s anxious,” she said. “He’s just unsure. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen.”

The federal Bureau of Prisons declined multiple requests for interviews, but emailed a statement in response to questions. The agency said it follows the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provides appropriate treatment for COVID-19.

“For safety, security, and privacy reasons, we do not discuss the conditions of confinement for any individual or group of inmates,” spokesman Scott Walker said in an email. “Additionally, for privacy reasons, we do not share personal information about staff.”

An inmate at Leavenworth tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 1, Walker said. Previously, only five inmates had tested positive. As of Monday, eight inmates and five staff members had recovered, and no one has died.

“Per CDC guidance, a contact tracing investigation is conducted for each positive case,” Walker said. “While in general population, any inmate displaying symptoms for COVID-19 will be tested and placed in isolation.”

Most inmates who test positive are asymptomatic, Walker said, while inmates with severe symptoms are sent to the hospital.

The Leavenworth federal prison is in the same county as the Lansing Correctional Facility, a state prison that saw about half of its population come down with COVID-19 earlier this year. Overall, five inmates in Kansas-run prisons have died from the virus, as well as three staff members.

Masks and sanitation

Randy Dyke, who is incarcerated at the Leavenworth federal prison, said not all staff members or inmates follow the rules when it comes to wearing masks. Family members of other inmates backed that up.

“We do wear masks, except in the dorms. As for the staff, most do wear masks. However, we have some who totally refuse to do so, putting us all at risk,” said Dyke, who is serving a sentence in the minimum-security satellite camp at Leavenworth. He spoke to the Kansas News Service through email.

Walker did not answer a question about whether there are staff members at Leavenworth who do not wear masks, but said that “all staff and inmates have been issued facial coverings and are required to wear them when social distancing is not available per CDC guidelines.”

Laundry machines at the prison don’t have water hot enough to wash the cloth masks issued by the prison, Dyke said. Many people wash their masks by hand, and don’t have access to bleach to sanitize them. He said the prison first gave out disposable masks, then gave three cloth masks to inmates and replaced those two months later.

“Most of the wash machines here are hooked up to cold water and are worn out and do not function correctly,” Dyke said, “so the clothes are not getting as clean as they should.”

Walker responded in his email that inmates regularly receive replacement masks and that prison laundry facilities use enough bleach, detergent and hot water to wash clothing adequately.

On lockdown

Since March, inmates across the federal prison system have had their movement restricted to prevent the spread of the virus. Social distancing in prison is basically impossible, Dyke said.

In the dorms at the minimum-security camp, Dyke said, some people sleep in bunks less than four feet apart. He shares a dorm with about 25 other men.

“It is just overcrowded here,” he said.

Before the full lockdown began in early September, inmates in the medium-security section of the prison couldn’t leave their cells except for one to two hours a day, according to family members of inmates.

Karch, whose boyfriend is in the medium-security unit, said he sometimes had to choose between showering and making a phone call, because the lines were so long.

Another woman whose husband also is in the medium-security unit said the long lines resulted in dozens of inmates standing too close to allow for proper social distancing. She spoke with the Kansas News Service on the condition of anonymity because she was afraid prison staff would retaliate against her husband.

“When it was time to use the phones, my husband said they were packed in there like sardines,” she said. “Basically shoulder to shoulder.”

Her husband, who is nearly 70, rarely seeks medical care because the prison doesn’t provide treatment for illnesses. She said inmates are instead told to buy over-the-counter medication from the prison commissary.

The conditions make the inmates uneasy about their physical health and safety during the pandemic, the woman said.

“These guys don’t know if they could wake up tomorrow and be really sick,” she said.

Since cases began to rise in the past two weeks, the woman and other people said that the lockdown had been extended to 24 hours a day and that they had not been able to contact their family members.

“Recently, the medium-security facility was temporarily secured with no movement occurring,” Walker confirmed in an email.

The added worry of having a family member in Leavenworth has made the pandemic even more stressful for those on the outside.

Jammie Rothchild, Dyke’s daughter, says she worries about her father, who is 60 years old and at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 due to his age.

“It sucks,” Rothchild said. “Our hands are tied. There’s nothing we can do.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at nomin (at) kcur (dot) org and follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

See more at https://www.kcur.org/news/2020-09-14/leavenworth-leads-federal-prisons-in-covid-19-cases-and-inmates-families-are-worried.