LAWRENCE, Kansas — 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.
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.
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.