Coronavirus infects workers at FedEx facility in Kansas
The Topeka Correctional Facility has six coronavirus cases. Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service

By NOMIN UJIYEDIIN, Kansas News Service

LAWRENCE, Kansas — In his 15 years as a corrections officer at
a northeast Kansas prison, David Carter witnessed stabbings, worked
through riots and broke up more fights than he can count. He was used to
risky situations.

When the coronavirus pandemic
showed up, Carter and his coworkers at the Lansing Correctional
Facility still touched other people and countless surfaces all day,
every day: putting on and taking off handcuffs, opening doors and
working multiple buildings in the same day or week.

Stress levels
at one of the state’s largest and oldest prisons were rising. The staff
needed to work longer hours because people had been laid off earlier in
the year. Carter had been exposed to the virus outside of work, and
twice self-isolated as a precaution, but a human resources employee told
him he had to come to work the second time because he didn’t have
symptoms.

“You can’t fit that many people under that roof and keep them distanced in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Carter
could no longer justify the risk of bringing the virus home to his
family, so he quit on April 28 in public fashion, posting his resignation letter on Facebook and talking to media outlets.

David Carter (left) quit his job at the Lansing Correctional Facility on April 28. Courtesy photo

“We all saw the writing on the wall a couple of months ago,” Carter
said. “Every senior staff looked at each other and said, ‘You know what?
If this thing shows up in our prison, everybody’s got it. There’s no
way around it.’”

Since March 31, 790 of about 10,000 inmates and 97 staffers have tested positive for COVID-19,
which has been found in seven of the state’s facilities (of which there
are nine adult prisons and one juvenile prison). At Lansing, 44% of
prisoners tested positive, and three inmates and two corrections
officers have died.

Knowing how quickly the virus can spread
inside close quarters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas
tried and lost a lawsuit in which they wanted the state to release about
55% of prisoners.

Under usual circumstances, prisons are
dangerous and understaffed, which can lead officers to consider
quitting. And during the pandemic, four current or former officers told
the Kansas News Service, the state hasn’t done enough to protect them
and acted too late to contain it.

A community problem

The
Kansas Department of Corrections issued updated guidelines in early
April regarding the use of personal protective equipment and the
screening of inmates and employees who enter any prison. It has tested
all of the inmates at Lansing and begun testing inmates at the Wichita
Work Release Facility, and announced that it would give fabric masks to all inmates and employees in early April.

“We
will continue to review our practices and improve those whenever and
wherever possible,” agency secretary Jeff Zmuda said this week. He
announced the agency will also begin testing all of its staff.

The
department has also started giving $200 per week to employees working
in prisons with positive COVID-19 cases, although workers are only
eligible if they don’t take any time off during each week.

Lansing
is the state’s most affected facility. As of May 13, 750 out of 1,699
people who are incarcerated there have tested positive for COVID-19.
Most are asymptomatic. Three of those people have died. Among staffers
at the prison in Leavenworth County, 88 have tested positive, and two died this week.

The
department said Thursday it would move all inmates from the Wichita
facility to Lansing after finding 38 positive cases in Wichita, almost
all of which are asymptomatic.

A corrections officer at Lansing,
who spoke with the Kansas News Service on the condition of anonymity
because of the risk of retaliation, brings in cleaning supplies and hand
sanitizer to share with coworkers because the prison doesn’t provide
enough.

Some coworkers, the corrections officer said, have had
trouble finding child care because daycares won’t take the children of
Lansing employees anymore.

“What are they going to do when
everybody catches it … and nobody wants to come to work?” the officer
said. “They have put us on the back burner for so long.”

Conditions inside Lansing

In
mid-April, the DOC announced it would be giving masks to all staff and
inmates. But the officer said employees had to ask directly for masks,
rather than receiving them as a group. The officer asked a nurse for
one, but a nurse said she had been instructed not to provide masks to
staff.

The officers also have been told they will face
disciplinary action if they bring in outside masks, said the officer,
who uses masks obtained from a local dentist rather than the ones
distributed by the state.

“I feel a mask is a mask, and right now that’s basically all we have to protect us,” the officer said.

A mask issued to corrections officers by the Kansas Department of Corrections. Courtesy photo

The Lansing officer also said that for two weeks at the end of April,
no laundry was being done — not even the inmates’ masks — because
prisoners were being moved to new buildings that didn’t have working
laundry facilities. Currently, the officer said, laundry and food carts
aren’t sanitized, even though they move between the two buildings where
inmates are staying.

For weeks, criminal justice advocates in
Kansas have raised questions and asked for solutions for the potentially
unsafe conditions in state prisons during the pandemic. In March, some
public defenders sent a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly asking her to release
prisoners to reduce virus transmission — both in prisons and in the
homes and communities where employees live.

“This is a public
safety, a public health concern,” public defender Jennifer Roth, who
signed the letter, told the Kansas News Service.

The state released six people on house arrest, but does not plan to release any more, Zmuda said.

At the same time, ACLU unsuccessfully sued to force the state
to release people who were convicted of minor crimes, had a short
amount of time left on their sentences or were vulnerable due to age or
illness.

“We are definitely disappointed for our clients who
continue to face dangerous and declining conditions inside Lansing,”
executive director Nadine Johnson said in an emailed statement. “KDOC’s
efforts clearly are not enough to protect the people they have a legal
obligation to keep safe.”

Fewer cases, similar worries

There
are only six known cases in the Topeka Correctional Facility, the
state’s only women’s prison. But officers there still fear for their
lives and safety — as well as their families’ well being, corrections
officer Jon-Wesley O’Hara said.

“Most of us do not have any way to
isolate from our families if it happens,” he said. “When it comes,
we’ll bring it home and we’re going to have to figure out how to live
with ourselves.”

O’Hara said it’s helped that new inmates are
quarantined when they arrive at the Topeka prison. But many inmates
don’t wear their masks, he said, and it’s impossible to keep people from
congregating the yard during recreation periods.

In the day rooms, the phones for inmate use are clustered within a few feet of each other.

“If
you want to have contact with people on the outside,” O’Hara said,
“you’re going to have to deal with people that are not six feet away
from you.There’s just no way around that.”

More staff at the
Topeka women’s prison are staying home due to illness, childcare issues
or self-isolation, O’Hara said. And several members of the prison’s
crisis-response team were temporarily transferred to Lansing.

The
short-staffing has led to more officers working overtime in Topeka. Some
of his coworkers have cancelled vacations because they don’t have
enough paid time off to self-quarantine for two weeks following travel
to high-risk areas.

Like Lansing, Topeka corrections officers
often move between multiple buildings in the same shift, which increases
the risk of transmission between units. That’s according to Cody Hill,
another corrections officer at the Topeka facility.

The prison has
required social distancing in the medication line, Hill said. But
education programs still go on in crowded classrooms. While the building
has decreased chow-hall occupancy during meal times, he said, people
still sit fairly close to each other for breakfast and dinner.

Hill
said inmates have been bringing trays back to their dorms for lunch,
where they sleep close enough to touch. Starting Monday, inmates will
bring all of their meals to their dorms, corrections spokesperson
Rebecca Witte said in an email.

Hill hasn’t considered quitting,
though. He thinks his work is important and doesn’t want to take the
risk of being unemployed during a recession. But he feels the Department
of Corrections has communicated poorly with staff.

“We don’t proactively plan for things,” Hill said, “and it really shows whenever we come to a crisis like this.”

Nomin
Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas
News Service. You can email her at [email protected] and follow
her on Twitter @NominUJ.

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