Investigations

On January 20, Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex was on medical lockdown as prison staff and Department of Corrections officials struggled to control a massive coronavirus outbreak.

“There seem to be issues with how we are handling this COVID situation,” Cookie Crews, the DOC commissioner, emailed the warden and an employee of Wellpath, the private company hired to run healthcare in Kentucky prisons. “We all need to get on the same page or we will have a hard time recovering.”

The DOC couldn’t find results for some of the tests that the warden and Wellpath said were performed. “We will never get EKCC up and running again if this continues,” Crews said on January 25.

Over 1,100 incarcerated people and 181 staff from EKCC have tested positive for the virus, the most of any facility in Kentucky. One person has died.

The Department of Corrections took the first steps to avoid a crisis like the one at EKCC more than a year ago now, after the first case appeared at the Green River Correctional Complex. The agency developed a plan for future outbreaks, and Gov. Andy Beshear ordered 1,880 people in jails and prisons released between April and August by commuting their sentences

“This is lightening the load on our corrections system and at the same time protecting some of the most vulnerable individuals who are in the corrections system,” said J. Michael Brown, Beshear’s Cabinet Secretary, on April 2.

The pandemic has stretched on for a tense year, and the state’s protocols have not stopped the spread inside correctional facilities. In the prisons alone, where over 9,600 people were held as of February data, there have been 7,883 cases and 48 deaths.

There have been no mass releases of incarcerated people since August. Those who remain live under frequent lockdowns and isolation, their loved ones shouldering costly fees to stay in touch. Access to programs that move incarcerated people toward parole has been limited. And the state prison system spent hundreds of thousands of coronavirus funds on unproven prevention equipment. 

 

Lisa Lamb, Deputy Commissioner of Community Services and Local Facilities at the Department of Corrections, said in an email that “the mitigation efforts we put in place were as successful as humanly possible due to the nature of the novel coronavirus.”

But Kentucky’s prisons rank second in the country for COVID-19 cases and third for deaths, with 48, according to the Marshall Project.

“We believe it is critical to note when considering our inmate deaths, that Kentuckians overall have poor health, ranking 44th out of 50 states,” Lamb said, noting that health issues that plague Kentuckians overall are those that make coronavirus infection especially dangerous. 

Kentucky’s reported death rate for the virus has consistently been below the national average.

Lamb also said that most deaths originate from the Kentucky State Reformatory, where the state incarcerates those who need assisted living or specialized medical care — but it doesn’t have a true medical facility. 

Despite all this, the state didn’t start vaccinating incarcerated people until this month— even those who would have qualified for vaccines on the outside much earlier. Today, only 181 people inside correctional facilities have been vaccinated, according to Beshear.

Elsewhere in Kentucky, anyone 60 or older — or anyone 16 or older with a risk factor — is currently eligible.

COVID Plan Hasn’t Stopped Virus

Kentucky started taking steps to combat the virus just as the first cases were discovered inside Green River last March.

The governor announced the first 900 commutations, and Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton in April ordered that defendants statewide be released if they were awaiting trial for non-violent, non-sexual charges and were not considered a risk for further criminal activity. Local level prosecutors and public defenders also struck up deals to keep people out of jail.

To protect people who remained incarcerated, the Department of Corrections said it started implementing enhanced cleaning procedures and began screening people for COVID-19 symptoms upon entry last March. Visitation was stopped altogether. Incarcerated workers at Kentucky Correctional Industries started producing cloth masks that were distributed throughout the state prison network.

Facilities with active cases were put under medical lockdown, which aims to reduce foot traffic by shutting down access to sections of the facility such as the cafeteria, the recreation yard or library. That means incarcerated people were kept in their cells except for 20 minutes a day to shower, do laundry and if time permits, contact loved ones on the outside.

“[Incarceration] is a terrible experience, no matter how you cut it, but when you take away some of those essential services, it’s going to be really dangerous,” said Wanda Bertram, a Communications Strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Lockdown and isolation became the main tool to fight spread in correctional facilities, in Kentucky and nationally, and it was part of Kentucky’s playbook for the next year of intermittent outbreaks. 

Lamb with the DOC said that institutions with a positive coronavirus case operate under “controlled containment or lockdown status” to allow for separation based on test results. 

Lockdowns are used in federal prisons, too, where a system-wide lockdown was instituted last year for the first time since 1995, according to a June report from Unlock the Box, an advocacy group which studies the use of solitary confinement. At least 10 people from Kentucky’s three federal prisons have died from the coronavirus, according to federal data.

Mekayla Breland, whose fiancé is incarcerated at Green River, says the experience has been traumatic. 

“They just keep locking them down every other week. My biggest concern right now is my fiancé’s mental health,” Breland said.

Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative acknowledges that preventing and dealing with an outbreak humanely is next to impossible in such crowded conditions. But that’s not an excuse to do too little, she said. 

“It is not okay to just throw up your hands and say, ‘Well, you know, these facilities were always going to be death traps, it’s fine,’ and basically adopt virus mitigation strategies inside jails that outside jails would be considered borderline fascistic.”

Year Of Isolation, Lockdowns

Stefanie Veselenak gave birth to her second child last February, a month after her fiancé was booked into the Campbell County jail. 

Over 45% of people serving time in Kentucky are charged with violating technical terms of their parole. Veselenak’s fiancé is one of those people — she says he missed a parole meeting in January 2019. His sentence was reinstated just before the pandemic hit Kentucky.

Her fiancé, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, spent most of the pandemic in the county jail, waiting for a transfer to state prison that didn’t come until this month. He’s also still waiting to meet his new son, since visitation has been suspended at correctional facilities for over a year now. 

Veselenak says she can tell the isolation is wearing on him.

“He’s just super depressed. Now knowing when he’s gonna see his kid, not knowing when he’s gonna get moved,” Veselenak said before he was transferred to Blackburn. “And it’s sad because he has no one in there to comfort him, and there is no answer to give him either.”

At the local jail, Veselenak kept in touch using video calls: about $10 for two,15-minute video calls, Veselenak says she spent around $4,000 last year, but it meant her fiancé could see the baby. 

Now that Veselenak’s fiance is in a state prison, he gets one free phone call per week and a free 15-minute video call every month. Veselenak lives in Detroit, but switched to a Kentucky phone number to avoid paying the prison’s long-distance rate. 

Those savings are important, since Kentucky is the least affordable state in which to make calls from prison, according to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. The organization cited the prison’s highest rate —  $5.70 for a 15-minute phone call — as the highest charged in any U.S. prison system.

The DOC contracts communication services to Securus, the company that provides email and other services to residents of correctional facilities under the name JPay.

And the state reaps much of the profit: Kentucky signed a new, exclusive contract with Securus last fall. Securus agrees to pay the state as much as 50% of its revenue — and at least $3.5 million a year.

Costly, Unproven Equipment And No In-Person Inspections

The Kentucky Department of Corrections received $5.7 million in August from a federal grant meant to support efforts to stop the coronavirus from spreading in jails and prisons, and passed $2.4 million on to local jails.

The DOC “left no stone unturned” when considering coronavirus protection measures, Lamb said, before it spent $297,000 of its money to place UV portals at the entry of each prison. 

Lamb called it “the first line of defense” in reducing microbes on clothings and personal belongings when staffers pass through and kill germs on their clothing. The DOC consulted research from Columbia University before purchasing the Far-UV portals, which retail at $22,500 a piece. 

Edward Nardell, an infectious disease expert at Harvard University said if used correctly, the portals can disinfect exposed surfaces —  but that’s not how the coronavirus is spread. 

“This is spread by what’s coming out of your nose and mouth and the UV can’t do anything about that,” Nardell said. “It’s just inconceivable that this could really benefit anyone.”

The trade group representing the UV industry in April cautioned against using UV light as protection against the coronavirus because it can cause skin damage, even cancer.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons made a similar purchase. When word got to Joe Rojas, the Southeast Regional Vice President for the union representing corrections officers in federal prisons, he filed a complaint with the inspector general.

“To me it’s waste, fraud and abuse because it’s not approved,” said Rojas, who represents workers at federal facilities in five states. “And it can cause cancer.” 

He says most federal prison staff walk right around the portals.

The next line of defense would be safety precautions implemented by DOC, including mandating staff and residents wear masks, and enhanced cleaning measures.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, however, people inside Kentucky jails and prisons have told the news media and loved ones that what the DOC and the governor say is happening at daily briefings doesn’t match what’s going on inside.

The DOC says it investigated 14 coronavirus-related grievances filed by people held in one of the DOC facilities in 2020. Just two full months into 2021 and eight such grievances have already been filed as cases skyrocket.

To ensure that facilities are complying with COVID-19 protocols, a DOC spokesperson says they monitor the burn rate of personal protective equipment and have the option to conduct virtual inspections. 

Hilarye Dailey, a deputy commissioner at DOC, said in a legislative hearing this month that the DOC was minimizing in-person visits to prisons to protect the health of residents. 

“That includes our central office staff,” Dailey said, “I haven’t been in a prison since Covid started for that very reason.”

Inspectors also haven’t entered the facilities. DOC spokesperson Katherine Williams said in an email that the agency has performed “over a dozen virtual internal audits” to inspect the 12 DOC facilities. 

Those virtual audits began late last summer, according to records obtained through an open records request. Inspectors were given files and audit materials as well as a “slide-based virtual tour” prepared by the facilities.

Overall, the remote inspectors praised how facilities were responding to the coronavirus. At Roederer Correctional Complex, inspectors noted that disciplinary actions against staff were relatively low, but that failure to comply with COVID-19 rules were the most commonly cited infractions.

When inspections turned to medical services, the private contractor responsible for coronavirus testing and treatment — on top of regular medical needs — conducted its own review.

A regional manager for Wellpath explained their operations, hours, access to sick care and medication distribution in a slide presentation to auditors, according to the inspection documents. Wellpath staff interviewed a handful of people incarcerated there and reported back that they had no complaints about access to care.

The state put the contract for medical services currently held by Wellpath out for bid in April — but only for 21 days, without allowing prospective companies to see the facilities in person or virtually. After criticism from the legislature, the state quickly retracted and rewrote the request for proposal; the new bidding period ends in May.

Program Backlog Means Longer Incarceration

The number of people incarcerated in Kentucky jails and prisons began to reverse its downward trend by mid-summer. Meanwhile, DOC procedures that could help release more people back to their homes have slowed during the pandemic.

DOC Deputy Commissioner Randy White wrote an email to prison wardens in August regarding what he called interruptions in services. 

White included a spreadsheet with overdue risk assessments known as KyRAS, which determine a person’s risk of recidivism and what programs or services DOC can provide to lower that risk before assigning a state prison.

He said he understands interruptions happen, but White wrote he had to be able to explain to his higher-ups “what could appear to be lapses in services.”

Risk assessments at several facilities were over a month overdue. A handful had assessments that were more than six months overdue — meaning incarcerated people were waiting to be enrolled in programs.

Randy White email Aug. 2020

Stefanie Veselenak’s fiancé waited for his assessment for more than a year in county jail.

While he waited, the Kentucky Parole Board deferred his parole for another 15 months and ordered him to complete a Moral Reconation Therapy program, a common condition for people who the parole board finds otherwise fit for release.

Before he could start that six-month program, however, Veselenak’s fiancé needed the risk assessment to be transferred to a state prison. That didn’t happen until thirteen months into his five-year sentence. “That stopped him from being able to do what the state asked him to do,” Vesekenak said.

In fact, fewer people inside DOC facilities are completing programs that would get them one step closer to the end of their sentences, most likely keeping them incarcerated for longer during the pandemic.

DOC reports show 20,221 program completions, including Moral Reconation Therapy and Substance Abuse Programs, in 2020. That’s a 17% decrease over the year prior.

Rehabilitation facilities and re-entry houses are also backed up and fewer people have access to their services. There were 401 people in a DOC halfway house as of March 13, 2020. The latest DOC population report shows 105 people in those facilities as of this month.

Still Few Vaccines Behind Bars

Only the oldest people in Kentucky correctional facilities have been offered vaccines.

While officials battled the outbreak at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in January, Gov. Beshear told Kentucky he was “evaluating” vaccinating people in prisons.

“We haven’t made a decision there yet,” Beshear said on January 29. “Certainly prisoners won’t go before individuals over 70, won’t go before our K through 12 (school) personnel, certainly (not) people 65 and older and some essential workers in some key areas that are so critical.”

The state hasn’t given a timeline for full vaccination inside these facilities, but Beshear said this week that vaccine shipments will arrive at the prisons in mid-April.

Only corrections staff were eligible for vaccinations along with other key essential workers in February, despite the CDC recommendation that staff and incarcerated people get vaccinated at the same time “because of their shared increased risk of disease.” Only half of corrections staff in Kentucky have opted to get vaccinated so far, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The outbreaks continue. On March 17, Cabinet Secretary Brown acknowledged a “significant spike” in cases inside Kentucky prisons, including large outbreaks at the Kentucky State Penitentiary and the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex.

“We’re not out in the woods with coronavirus cases in corrections,” said Kentucky Public Advocate Damon Preston.

Preston believes that people inside jails and prisons should have been at the front of the line for the vaccine alongside those inside long-term care facilities and nursing homes, who were vaccinated in January.

“The only way that you can distinguish someone in prison from someone in a nursing home is if it’s a value or moral decision that the person in the nursing home deserves the vaccine more than someone in a prison,” Preston said. 

“And I think when we’re dealing with issues of public health, we should not be drawing the lines based upon some past behavior and our judgment of that person’s merit.”

Correction: The bidding period for the prison medical services contract was extended until May 2021. The timeframe was incorrect in a previous version.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.