Video by Stuart Harmon
The men incarcerated at Lansing Correctional Facility, a state prison in northeastern Kansas, first heard about the Covid-19 pandemic from the news or from relatives on the outside. There were no known cases in the state — but at the prison, dozens of men had begun to fall ill, some severely.
Rachad Austin was counting down the days left in his four-year sentence, but as news of the virus continued to trickle in, he grew increasingly worried. He had a collapsed lung due to a gunshot wound — and sometimes he suffered from chest pains and had difficulty breathing. Dozens of people around him were beginning to show symptoms, “and next thing you know, they’re passed out,” Austin told me on a recent call from prison. “It was a really scary time. … We were all wondering what was going on.”
Sherman Wright was also worried. Like some 40 percent of those incarcerated in the U.S., he had asthma and diabetes, making him particularly vulnerable to complications from Covid-19. At 56, he was also one of nearly 200,000 people over the age of 55 incarcerated in the U.S. — another factor that contributed to his vulnerability. Wright’s sister, Cynthia Crawford, at first thought he’d be safe in prison, where Wright was 32 years into a 66-years-to-life sentence over three robberies he had committed in his youth. “I thought, well, they’re confined so how can it get to them?” she told me during a recent interview. “But it did. And when it did, my worry went from 10 to 100, and as it progressed I hardly got any sleep. I worried about him every day, I woke up with him on my mind.”
Worried families soon started calling the prison, but officials did not publicly acknowledge the threat posed by the virus until mid-March, when they shut down visits and encouraged inmates to wash their hands more frequently — hardly the mundane task in prison that it is outside. By the time three staff members tested positive, on March 31, most men incarcerated at Lansing suspected that they, too, had been exposed to the virus — and yet it took prison management nearly a month to start testing them in large numbers. When they did, they found that some units of the prison had as much as a 75 percent rate of positive tests. “We all knew we were positive,” said Austin. “This was not the situation anyone would want to be in — but we were trapped.”
By the end of May, both Austin and Wright had indeed tested positive — as had nearly 900 others of the prison’s 1,700 inmates. Four incarcerated men and two staff members had died, and the prison had become the 14th largest cluster of coronavirus cases in the country and the largest in Kansas. As pressure on officials had mounted along with the number of cases, Gov. Laura Kelly had promised in early April that some vulnerable people would be released to home confinement. But weeks into the process, only six inmates in the entire state had been freed, and none from Lansing. Kelly, a Democrat who had campaigned in part on the promise to reform the state’s overburdened prison system, said releasing people “is very complicated, legally” — though critics noted she had the legal authority to do so.
As The Intercept has reported, prisons and jails have become epicenters in the coronavirus pandemic. There are more than 53,000 nationwide cases among residents, including at least 616 deaths, and among staff more than 12,000 cases and 48 deaths. The story of how the pandemic unfolded at Lansing reveals many missteps by state and prison officials who consistently underplayed the threat posed by the virus: delaying testing, transferring and mixing exposed people, and initially failing to distribute and require masks even as cases surged. And the situation at Lansing was made worse by chronic issues in the Kansas prison system, which was already plagued by severe overcrowding and staff shortages. But as was the case in many prisons across the country, the outbreak at Lansing was also largely avoidable, and officials ignored a series of warnings from staff, families, and attorneys and for weeks failed to take significant action to stop the virus.
“It was clear what was going to happen,” Jennifer Roth, a Kansas public defender, told me in a recent interview. “All you had to do was look at other prisons and jails across the country, and what medical professionals and other scientists were saying. It was clear what could happen, and then it did happen.”
By the time the prison moved to more aggressively contain the spread of the virus — after a riot had broken out in one of its units over a lack of masks — it was too late.
“They took too long,” said Roth.
“I think they honestly just didn’t care what was going on with us because we’re inmates,” said Austin, who is scheduled to be released on Thursday at the end of his sentence. “They didn’t want to deal with it.”
Gov. Kelly’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Corrections did not answer detailed questions from The Intercept, but wrote in a statement that “just as others have around the country, we are facing this unique challenge which placed previously unimaginable stress on our system.”
“The Lansing Correctional facility is in the Kansas City metro area where the first cases of COVID-19 were experienced in Kansas,” the spokesperson added. “And being first at a time when public health officials, using currently available science, were not yet aware of asymptomatic persons, masks were not recommended, testing supplies were limited at best, and social distancing was a new concept for everyone factored into our response.”
“As the science and recommended guidelines changed, we adapted quickly and implemented recommended changes.”
On March 7, Kansas officials reported the state’s first case of Covid-19 in Johnson County, not far from Lansing. There are several other prisons and jails in the area, and staff moved frequently between them and around nearby Kansas City.
But nearly a month later, with cases surging in the state and Kansans under a stay-at-home order, very few people were wearing masks at Lansing Correctional Facility. Kayla Donley, Rachad Austin’s fiancée, had called the prison to ask whether she could mail him one, and she told prison staff that she was required to wear a mask at the hospital where she worked, even though her job kept her at a far greater distance from people than inmates and guards were from each other. But the prison staffer she spoke to told her she couldn’t mail the mask. Austin could cover his face with a T-shirt, she said the staffer told her, but he might face disciplinary action if he did.
“It’s like they didn’t even care,” said Donley. “I feel like no one knew what was going on at Lansing during this time, and they brushed it off and acted like it wasn’t a big deal. … None of them took it seriously.”
Those incarcerated at the prison weren’t the only ones without masks. In the early days of the outbreak, several inmates complained to relatives and attorneys that guards were not covering their faces, even though some had been out sick with apparent Covid-19 symptoms. And David Carter, a Lansing correctional officer who quit his job in April over the prison’s mishandling of the virus, said that guards had actually been discouraged from wearing masks by management. “They were told it was going to cause a panic among the inmates,” said Carter. “A couple staff members were threatened with disciplinary action for wearing a mask.”
Carter, who worked as a correctional officer at Lansing for 15 years, said that staff who had tested positive to the virus were required to show up for work unless they were symptomatic. He shared text messages between prison staff that appear to confirm the policy and suggest that the prison was trying to figure out how to keep staff who had tested positive separate from inmates who had not.
“I have seen a lot of ineptitude over 15 years,” said Carter, who since his resignation has publicly blamed the state’s corrections officials for the six Covid-19 deaths of Lansing inmates and staff. “But there was a level of intentional ignorance — like they wanted to stay in the dark about Covid-19, they just wanted to stick their heads in the sand.”
“They spent about a month, maybe five weeks, just ignoring it completely,” added Carter. “They didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was because every level of government was science deniers that were basically saying that it’s a hoax, and it’s not going to happen.”
But the “final straw,” Carter said, was officials’ decision to quarantine inmates who had been exposed to the virus in a new and already troubled facility built by the private prison giant CoreCivic and leased to the state. The move was not expected for months because the prison was not ready and the prison’s staff was already stretched thin at the old facility. Then, after a riot broke out at the old facility, officials began to move more inmates to the new facility, exposing them to the virus and causing what Carter described as a very volatile security situation at the new facility, which he said was dangerously understaffed.
“The current and ever-growing atmosphere of ‘do more with less’ has put in danger every single staff member that regularly interacts with offenders,” Carter wrote in his resignation letter. “I can no longer be associated with a facility that is a ticking time bomb.”
“The line staff are just as concerned about this as the inmates are,” he also told me. “It’s not this us versus them mentality. If there’s an us versus them, it’s the line staff and the inmates versus the ineptitude of the top, really.”
Officials justified the move to the new facility as necessary to isolate inmates. Then weeks later, after a number of positive cases emerged at a work-release facility in Wichita, more than 200 men who had lived there were also moved to Lansing. The transfers proved to be disastrous.
“I really don’t know if these decisions were made at the advice of any public health officials,” said Lauren Bonds, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Kansas chapter. “But we do know that there were people from Wichita who got infected because they were kind of thrown into a hot spot at Lansing, when they were really facing a much smaller risk when they were in Wichita.”
“I still to this day don’t know why that decision was made,” she added. “But it definitely has panned out that it was not in the best interest of stopping transmissions and reducing infection rates.”
Kansas officials were repeatedly warned about the devastating impact a Covid-19 outbreak could have on the state’s prisons and jails.
In the early days of the U.S. pandemic, a group of Kansas attorneys made fliers explaining what was known about the virus and how people could protect themselves, and asked jails across the state to post them. They had written letters to each of their clients to explain what Covid-19 was and how it spread, and they had promised them that they would do everything in their power to get them released, said Melody Brannon, one of those attorneys.
“The state government was entirely unprepared for this,” Brannon told me, noting that her federal clients, who are held in local jails, continued to be charged for soap for weeks as Covid-19 spread, and that attorneys at her office pitched in out of pocket to put money in the commissary accounts of clients who couldn’t afford to buy it. People who were sick were charged $8 for requesting a visit at the infirmary, and then $8 for the actual visit, she added, and that was excluding the cost of any care they might have received. “Even in good times they have such a hard time managing health care within a prison,” said Brannon. “There are so many inequities built in.”
On March 31, a group of attorneys wrote a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly that was “chock-full of science and the experiences of what was going on in other places,” said Roth, the public defender. From the very beginning, she and others called on officials to release as many people as possible, arguing that rapidly reducing the number of incarcerated people was the only meaningful way to curb the spread of the virus.
The correctional officers’ union also raised the alarm, calling on the Department of Corrections to put in place measures to stop the spread of the virus, according to Carter. “The union was trying to get them to at least have a plan in place,” he said, noting that they weren’t even asking for additional resources like masks or other protective equipment. “They literally were just asking for a ‘what if’ scenario to be put in place. And they refused to even do the planning.”
On April 9, the same day that a riot broke out in one of Lansing’s units, the ACLU of Kansas filed a class-action lawsuit demanding the urgent release of vulnerable inmates and those close to the end of their sentence. The ACLU argued that the prison’s response to the pandemic had been inadequate: Inmates were still being charged for soap, most staff weren’t wearing masks even though the prison had finally begun to issue them, and there was no effort to maintain social distancing. “The prison’s response and the state’s response was that some of this is just inevitable in a correctional setting,” said Bonds. “And people are just going to get sick, and we can only do what we can do, and unfortunately this is as much physical distancing as we can provide, this is the best we can do.”
A judge ruled that the ACLU had failed to prove that the state’s response had been inadequate enough to violate the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and dismissed the suit. When the suit was filed, there had been between 20 and 30 known Covid-19 cases in the state’s prisons. “That number wasn’t that scary,” said Bonds. “But basically as soon as our case was dismissed, we were starting to hear numbers in the hundreds. … That’s how we ended up with close to 900 people testing positive and getting infected — and that’s 900 inmates, that’s not even including the staff members who tested positive.”
In early April, the governor promised that officials were reviewing a list of inmates with close release dates and “viable plans” for reentry. More than 500 cases were reviewed as part of the process, according to Bonds, but by early May, only six people had been released. By that point, hundreds of people had been infected at Lansing.
What most frustrated Roth is that throughout the process, Kelly admitted that the state’s prisons were overcrowded and that too many people were incarcerated. “She said all these things through this process, but still wouldn’t actually move on releasing people,” said Roth, who also blamed the state’s legislature for their failure to do more. “I believe they did not want to wade into having to defend releasing people.”
As The Intercept has reported, Kansas was hardly the only state to release a negligible number of people during the pandemic — and despite nationwide calls to reduce the risk of Covid-19 in prison by drastically reducing the number of incarcerated people, very few were actually released. That decision was dictated by politics rather than public health, critics say, partially because releasing people would likely draw further attention to the fact that far too many are incarcerated to begin with.
“If they start releasing people and it works, and there isn’t mayhem in the streets, then it really helps the argument that we are over-incarcerating in the first place,” said Brannon. “If you release people, and they find that there wasn’t a huge surge in crime, then they’re going to have to admit that there really is mass incarceration and over-incarceration that is unnecessary, and Covid proved it. And as long as they resist and keep people in, you won’t have that evidence.”
Cynthia Crawford had hoped her brother, Sherman Wright, who had serious preexisting conditions, might be one of those the state would consider for early release. By that point, the families of the men incarcerated at Lansing had started receiving updates from the prison — usually when someone died, said Crawford — and when the governor had said the state was reviewing some inmates’ cases for possible early release, “that gave me hope,” she said.
Crawford wrote to the governor twice but never heard back. “I wrote to everybody trying to get some help,” she said. Wright was serving what amounted to a life sentence because of Kansas’s “three strikes” law, after he had been convicted in the 1980s for three robberies during which no one was hurt. Wright claims he stole about $60 — earning him a sentence of more than a year for each dollar. Since its class-action lawsuit was dismissed, the ACLU of Kansas has launched a clemency initiative, filing dozens of clemency applications on behalf of the most vulnerable people incarcerated in the state, and Crawford now hopes her brother might qualify for early release that way. His first parole hearing is not scheduled until 2026.
“We were very poor,” said Crawford, who for years has visited her brother every two weeks, until Covid-19 forced her to switch to video visitations. “Stealing is a crime, OK, do your time. But not your whole life.”
Days after the first Lansing guards tested positive, the prison switched course on masks, and men incarcerated there began making masks to be distributed to staff first, and then to inmates themselves.
“They’re coming out, passing out masks three months after people got sick,” said Austin, who had also hoped to qualify for early release, since he had only a few weeks left on his sentence.
It’s unclear why, but when the masks arrived to Lansing’s C2 block, they were never handed out to the men living there. “They got locked into an office somewhere and ignored,” said Carter. “And that’s ultimately what set the inmates off.” Austin, who didn’t live in that block, said that the men there, including several who were sharing their cells with four other people, had also been denied showers. “The guys were frustrated already,” he said. “They just wanted to take a shower, and they wanted face masks.”
Videos of the riot — which some inmates themselves took with contraband cell phones — went viral. Nobody was seriously hurt, and when officials retook control of the block, they began to move people to the new facility at Lansing, where inmates who were exposed to Covid-19 had already been quarantined. A few days later, a smaller riot also broke out at a different prison, the Ellsworth Correctional Facility, apparently after a guard who had been working at Lansing was sent to Ellsworth without first quarantining. After the Lansing riot, prison staff there started going around to measure everyone’s temperature, said Austin, and the National Guard sent in medics to make up for the shortage of nursing staff at the prison, many of whom had also been exposed to the virus.
By that point, most inmates at Lansing were presumed to have been exposed. Those who complained of symptoms were given Tylenol and told to drink water. “They told me that unless my breathing changes, they couldn’t do anything because they knew we were all positive,” said Austin. “They were only taking the worst of the worst to the clinic. Unless you were on the verge of dying, you basically just had to deal with it.”
Austin tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of April. But the prison didn’t tell him until more than a week later, after his fiancée learned of his results during a phone call with a prison official. “They came and tested him and said they would have the results back in 48 hours and they never came back and told him anything,” said Donley. “It’s honestly sickening how inhumanely they treat these guys just because they are in prison.”
Austin didn’t develop severe symptoms, and he was never tested again, including before his release from Lansing on Thursday. Earlier this month, the Kansas Department of Corrections declared the outbreak at Lansing “contained.”
But this week, as men incarcerated at Lansing reported a new outbreak at the prison and as cases once again spiked in Kansas, so did questions about how officials might handle a new wave of Covid-19 at Lansing, or in other prisons across the state. “The Department of Corrections can say, ‘Oh well, we are taking all these precautions.’ But clearly that did not work out for them before, at least not at Lansing,” said Roth. “What happens when the next phase occurs?”
Bonds, of the ACLU, noted that the only acknowledgement of mistakes at Lansing consisted of officials criticizing the prison’s private medical provider, Corizon Health. This month, Kansas switched to a new contractor to provide medical services in prisons — though it’s not clear whether the pandemic or cost-saving measures were the reason behind the state’s decision not to renew Corizon’s contract. A company spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept that “the Corizon team is grateful for the chance to care for the patients in custody with the Kansas DOC these last several years, and we are proud of the care provided.”
Advocates who had predicted the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on Kansas prisons are now once again raising the alarm.
“I don’t think they are ready,” said Bonds, who also noted that the ACLU had received several reports of loosening safety measures in the state’s prisons. “There’s a sense of fatigue, like ‘Everyone’s sick already, let’s stop wearing masks.’ Some of the precautions that were being taken are being abandoned, it’s kind of back to business as usual.”
As inmates returned to their prison jobs and guards continued to move between facilities, Bonds also warned of the possibility that a different prison might see an outbreak next time.
“I think that we could very well see another wave or spike,” she said. “I don’t think the state identified a way to prevent another Lansing.”