LAWRENCE, Kansas — Kansas’ prisons and many of its county jails have suspended in-person visits indefinitely to keep down the risk of coronavirus spreading among inmates. The only exception is lawyers, who will be allowed to visit their clients.
Correctional facilities’ close quarters and lower health care quality means there’s a higher likelihood of COVID-19 virus spreading, though state and county facilities say they are doing what they can to keep things clean — asking for frequent hand washing, wiping down transport vehicles and phones and frequently scrubbing prison dining halls and gathering spaces.
As of Thursday, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in correctional facilities in Kansas.
The Kansas Department of Corrections explained in memos to inmates and family members why visits are suspended. Spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said inmates will be allowed two 15-minute phone calls and three 30-minute video calls a week free of charge.
“Shutting off visitation isn’t ideal,” she said. “We want families and folks within the community to be able to stay in touch with their loved ones.”
Some county jails in Kansas, including Johnson, Geary and Riley, say they have also suspended visits, with the exception of legal representation. Riley County Jail, in Manhattan, reduced its charge for video visits to 25 cents a minute.
Illnesses spread easily in prison, said Dr. Homer Venters, president of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and former chief medical officer for New York City jails. And disrupting visits can make things worse for people who are incarcerated.
“If they’re cut off from their families, it really promotes a lot of fear and anxiety,” he said. “Anxiety and chaos can really stand in the way of just the day-to-day operating of the facilities.”
Health care plans
Prison health care systems are generally cut off from community health networks, which can make it harder to access care. Plus, access to soap and working sinks is not always guaranteed, Venters said.
To reduce harm, he said correctional facilities should identify inmates who are vulnerable due to age or other medical conditions.
“It’s still very easy to lose track of the people who have pre-existing risk factors for death if they develop symptoms," he said. "Those people need very close surveillance."
Witte detailed the state’s plan to handle inmates who may test positive for COVID-19: They’ll be given medication to reduce pain and fever and will be isolated from the rest of the population in a designated quarantine area. If symptoms become severe, Witte said, they will be transported to a local hospital. The department did not provide the number of ventilators in its prisons.
State prison staff are cleaning high-traffic areas like dining halls more frequently, she said. The department is also considering increasing the frequency of laundry service.
The memos to prisoners also describe the symptoms of coronavirus and ways to prevent it, including “proper hand-washing techniques” and not touching one’s face.
Yvonne Stevenson-Powell, who is serving a sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility, said she feels the prison is taking the necessary precautions, but is concerned that there may not be enough cleaning supplies.
“We as an inner community have learned to watch the news and live accordingly in this environment,” she told the Kansas News Service in an email. “I believe that proper cleaning is our only issue.”
Tyrone Baker, incarcerated in the Lansing Correctional Facility, said he received two emails from the corrections department explaining the virus. He also told the Kansas News Service in an email that staff in a unit that houses elderly and other medically vulnerable people have been cleaning door handles and rails more frequently.
Many people get sick at the Lansing prison, he said, but not everyone receives treatment. And of course, it’s impossible to know if anyone has COVID-19 without tests.
“Prisoners are told it is the flu or cold,” he said. “But some have symptoms that are clearly food poisoning, while others have symptoms that include shortness of breath.”
In the Johnson County jail, which holds about 1,200 people, information about the virus has been posted for inmates.
“Basically all the information that’s being put out daily to the general public, we are putting it into the modules as well,” Canaan said. “They do have access to television where they can watch the news and stay up to date.”
The jail is also sanitizing its transport vehicles and increasing how often they clean frequently touched surfaces like phones and door handles, Canaan said.
The Geary County jail has a capacity of more than 170. A nurse stops by daily to take people’s temperature and staff have spoken to inmates about the virus, spokesman David Gilbert said.
“I know they’ve talked about hygiene, as far as that’s concerned,” he said. “I don’t know that they’ve had the actual discussion with them yet as far as symptoms.”
He added that inmates who get sick will be put into isolation.
Riley County’s 147-bed facility is not releasing its plans for inmates who get sick due to safety reasons, according to Hali Rowland, public information officer for the Riley County Police Department. But the janitorial staff is sanitizing areas more frequently, she said, and inmates have been informed of handwashing procedures.
Suspending visits and cleaning can reduce harm, Venters said, but, ultimately, it’s the staff members who enter and leave every day most at risk of bringing COVID-19 to a prison or jail.
Kansas prison employees are being told to stay home if they’re sick or if they’ve traveled to a place with a high number of COVID-19 cases, Witte said. Staff are also allowed to switch shifts if they need to stay home to take care of children, who will be at home the rest of the school year.
The department acknowledged that staff may need to work overtime and double shifts if enough employees are out sick. Last year, chronic understaffing issues resulted in many corrections officers working 16-hour days for weeks on end.
Contingency plans for short staffing will be different for each prison, Witte said, adding: “We’ll be keeping a close eye on staffing as this unfolds.”
The Johnson County jail is screening people during intake. Canaan also said many employees of the sheriff’s office are cross trained to work in the jail and can step in if the jail is short staffed due to employee illness.
Smaller jails in the state, however, did not provide details about contingency plans for a shortage of staff. Gilbert in Geary County said he wasn’t sure what plans were in place if a large number of staff got sick. Riley County is sending home employees who are sick.
It’s important for prisons and jails to communicate and implement their plans in a way that the people inside can understand, Venters said, rather than just trying to make themselves look good to the public.
“People... who are incarcerated are not getting good information,” he said. “They’re generally the last people to be considered.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can 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.