By Katie Moore and Katie Bernard
COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in Kansas prisons, with 653 inmates at five different facilities receiving a first dose of the vaccine as of Wednesday, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections.
The arrival of the vaccine has been a welcome relief for many in the Kansas prison system, which has one of the highest infection rates in the country.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 6,047 of the state’s inmates have been infected. Among all U.S. states, Kansas has the fourth highest infection rate among inmates in state facilities, according to the COVID Prison Project, behind Arkansas, Michigan and Connecticut.
Prisons in Kansas, which like other such facilities create conditions that help the virus spread, have experienced dozens of alarming outbreaks that have led to disturbances and severe staff shortages. Fourteen inmates have died. More than 1,250 prison staff have had the virus and five have died.
Last summer, a cluster at Lansing Correctional Facility became one of the largest outbreaks in the country with more than 1,000 cases. That was surpassed by an outbreak at Hutchinson Correctional Facility where more than 1,300 inmates became infected. Outbreaks have occurred as recently as late January at the facility in Winfield.
Among the overall population of Kansas residents the case rate per 1,000 people sits at 99, but for those behind bars it’s significantly higher at 620.
Sharon Brett, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the high number of prisoners infected with the coronavirus was awful.
“This population is one of the most vulnerable in the state,” she said Tuesday. “They have little control over the conditions that they live in and little ability to protect themselves.
“We should all be seriously concerned about this and about the significant and long-lasting impact it can have on those people who are living in these facilities, as well as working in them and then coming back out to the communities.”
Those living in congregate situations are at a high risk of contracting the virus, said Kansas Department of Corrections spokeswoman Carol Pitts.
“The Kansas Department of Corrections continues to coordinate our response to COVID-19 with Governor (Laura) Kelly and officials at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to ensure all mitigation efforts are consistent with current public health practices,” Pitts said in a statement.
“The safety and well-being of our staff and our residents continues to be our top priority.”
The corrections department began receiving doses last week, Pitts said.
That was after state lawmakers, earlier this month, voted to condemn Kelly for her decision to prioritize vaccinations for inmates in accordance with standards issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some lawmakers argued that inmates should not be vaccinated before those with severe preexisting conditions even though prison conditions contribute to the spread of the virus.
The Senate approved a nonbinding resolution on a 28-8 vote, with all but one vote for it coming from its Republican majority. The resolution was largely symbolic and had no impact on the vaccine’s distribution to corrections facilities.
Brett said she was glad Kelly prioritized individuals in incarcerated settings.
“These are human beings,” Brett said. “These are human beings with families and communities and people who love them and we have to recognize the humanity of those that we incarcerate. We’re scared for our neighbors, we’re scared for our community members and what this pandemic can do to them and we should be scared about what this pandemic is doing to people we incarcerate as well.”
Earlier this month, Nicholas Moore said he was anticipating the arrival of the vaccine.
He was fortunate, he said, in that he has not tested positive. But the 38-year-old, serving time on drug charges, was deeply concerned about how the Kansas Department of Corrections has handled the pandemic and said officials were not properly isolating infected inmates.
“I’m still in danger because of the new variants that are popping up throughout the U.S,” he wrote from the prison’s email system.
Two cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is more transmissible, have been found in Kansas.
Moore also questioned the transfers the department was making. According to prison records, he has been moved three times since the pandemic began. One week ago, he was sent to Winfield Correctional Facility, where a cluster was recently identified.
Moore said it is like living in a nightmare.
“Even though we made mistakes, we are still somebody’s father, son, brother, husband and friend,” he wrote.
Another prisoner, who asked not to be named in this story, filed a grievance and reported that prison staff put him in a cell with someone who had the virus. The man, serving time after being convicted of theft, asked “why was my life put in danger?”
He said a staff member answered that they were following guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and that they could not “speak to another offender’s medical issues,” the grievance form read.
“I was sentenced to only 13 months not death,” the man wrote in a letter to The Star.
The state knew how quickly the disease spreads in jails and prisons in the U.S. back in March, but did not do enough, said Jennifer Roth, co-chair of Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ legislative committee and appellate public defender.
“What happened in Kansas is shocking, but not at all surprising,” Roth said. “The State of Kansas — the Legislature, Governor, and Department of Corrections — could have avoided the extent to which COVID consumed our prisons ... They knew that health and correctional experts were recommending that people be released to mitigate the spread.”
Early in the pandemic, advocates called on Gov. Kelly to release those with serious underlying conditions and people with less than six months to serve. Less than 20 were released.
Roth commended Kelly for prioritizing those who are incarcerated for the vaccine, but said the governor could do more. More than 100 clemency petitions have been filed in recent months, but no decisions have been made.
Corrections officers also say the state has floundered in its response.
Employees still face the same problems they encountered early in the pandemic, when managers would tell them to come into work sick or insist they take sick time rather than administrative leave when they believed they’d been exposed to the virus, according to Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents correction workers.
The problem, LaFrenz said, is most pronounced in prisons like Lansing where staffing was stretched even before the pandemic. The facility has seen prison riots recently.
“That stresses an already super stressed-out system,” she said.
LaFrenz said she hoped the beginning of vaccinations for staff members would improve the situation, but that taking the vaccine was “completely voluntary.”
The process of vaccinating inmates in Kansas will take up to 12 weeks, the department of corrections said, adding that it will not track or share vaccinations numbers of its employees.
Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.