Health Investigations

On the first Sunday in March, Teresa Johnson’s son called her from the Green River Correctional Complex with news that the facility was shutting down visitation due to the coronavirus.

Johnson didn’t think much of it back then. She had just visited her son earlier that day. The coronavirus seemed to be under control.

Since then it’s been a steady stream of worrisome news.

“My son would call and he would say ‘Mama, there’s more people here sick than what the news is saying,’” Johnson said.

On April 29, her son was tested for the coronavirus. A few days later, he called to tell Johnson he was one of the 358 inmates at Green River, a medium-security men’s prison, who have tested positive for the virus.

“He said ‘Mama, I don’t want to die in the pen,’” Johnson said. 

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Teresa Johnson, right, protests along with others with family members incarcerated at Green River.

Since then he’s been moved to a separate wing of the prison with other inmates who have contracted the coronavirus. He’ll stay in a cell there until a second test shows he’s no longer infected, but Johnson said so far that second test hasn’t happened.

Johnson’s son is eight years into a minimum 25-year sentence at Green River Correctional Facility for a violent offense, so when Gov. Andy Beshear announced he would commute the sentences of certain nonviolent offenders to ease the burden on the overcrowded facilities, her son was not eligible.

The governor has so far commuted 1,154 sentences. That’s more than many other states, but it’s still a small portion of the 24,000 individuals serving state sentences in Kentucky. 

Kentucky has the ninth highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Kentucky’s prisons are so overcrowded that many state prisoners are housed in seriously overcrowded local jails. The coronavirus presents a threat that has already proven deadly: Three inmates have died after catching the coronavirus at Green River.

Before those deaths, just 16 of more than 900 inmates were released after commutations, according to data released by the state. 

Kentucky Department of Corrections Director of Communications Lisa Lamb noted that some inmates have made parole recently and will be released soon; they are being held until their eligible release date.

At Roederer Correctional Complex, where two staff members and one inmate have tested positive for the virus, 34 people were released through commutations. The Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women and the Kentucky State Reformatory saw 34 and 21 commutations, respectively.

About 80% were released from local jails, where most inmates convicted of low-level felonies serve their sentences. 

The city of Louisville says 695 inmates have been tested at Louisville Metro Corrections and nine have contracted the virus. The governor’s commutations released 35 people from there.

Like almost all of the women contacted for this story, Johnson did not want to identify her son, because she fears prison staff will retaliate against those whose families are speaking out.

Johnson says her son, who is a diabetic, has lost 10 to 15 pounds because of the change in diet he used to be able to buy hot food from the commissary, but now his only option is a sack lunch, usually served cold. Johnson says she can hear the stress in her son’s voice when he calls. “He just sounds so depressed, it’s a hurtful thing.”

Johnson, like many others who have loved ones in Green River, has a seemingly simple request for the people who are responsible for the well being of their loved ones: If the state can’t send her son home, at least keep him safe. 

Advocates Push For More Releases

On April 2, a week after the first guard at Green River Correctional Center tested positive for the coronavirus, Beshear announced he would commute the sentences of nonviolent offenders falling under three criteria: those over 65 years old, at-risk individuals with underlying health conditions or those with less than six months left in their sentence.

“In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to promote and secure the safety and protection of individuals in state custody and correctional staff, it is necessary to reduce the inmate population in the overcrowded jails and prisons in Kentucky,” the governor’s executive order reads.

Kate Miller, the advocacy director at the Kentucky chapter of the ACLU, said these commutations are a step in the right direction, but that Beshear could go further. Releasing around 5% of the population won’t significantly reduce the density of people inside to reduce the chances of infection, she said. 

“There are definitely other categories of Kentuckians that should be considered for release,” Miller said. “That’s true outside of the pandemic as well.”

Miller said that includes inmates with substance abuse issues, who may be better treated outside of prison. Miller also points to people who are locked up because of minor probation or parole violations, such as missing a meeting with a parole officer or failing a drug test. About 45% of Kentucky inmates are serving time for these kinds of violations, one of the highest rates of the country, according to the Council of State Governments.

Controlled Containment

Phoenix Shepherd says she’ll never forget March 25, the day she first learned that the coronavirus had made its way into the Green River Correctional Complex.

Shepherd says she called the Department of Corrections the next day to find out what was being done to keep her husband safe. She says the department told her the situation was under control because positive cases at Green River were limited to administrative staff who didn’t come into contact with prisoners.

“They didn’t take it seriously,” Shepherd said. “And now look.”

The Department of Corrections says Green River has been operating under “controlled containment” since April 6. According to the DOC, that means inmates are kept inside their cells except for vital activities such as phone calls and exercise, which are done in 20-minute segments in small groups to allow for social distancing. Staff are screened for symptoms daily and the facility has increased sanitation measures using a bleach solution and germicide which has been provided to individual dorms. Inmates have been given cloth masks that they are required to wear along with staff.

Lamb of the DOC said the department continues to monitor the situation at Green River. “We have taken action in consultation with the Department for Public Health to minimize the health risks and to contain the spread of the virus,” Lamb said in an email. Lamb said 480 retests have been conducted and the rest are expected to be completed by Friday.

Shepherd and other women who have organized under the name “Prison Wives of Green River Correctional Complex” are skeptical that all of these steps are actually being implemented, however, based on reports from their loved ones. 

Responding to their allegations on May 5, Beshear defended his administration’s response to the Green River outbreak by highlighting his decision to have every inmate tested for the virus. 

“I will tell you most other governors out there aren’t doing that at prisons,” Beshear said.

A report from the nonprofit journalism organization The Marshall Project found that only a handful of states have implemented widespread testing in prisons. Where they are testing, officials are finding infections: The Marshall Project found 29,251 positive cases in prisons across the country as of May 20.

Others are mostly testing those with obvious symptoms.

Shepherd and about a dozen others with loved ones inside the facility gathered at the state capital on Saturday to push the governor to do more.

This is the third time they’ve shown up at the governor’s mansion, and the group feels that Beshear’s decision to test everyone at Green River was in response to their pressure.

But testing is not enough, they say. All the women at Saturday’s rally share similar reports of the conditions inside Green River, conditions they say violate their loved ones 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishments.

The men report there’s not enough hand sanitizer, clean masks or other cleaning supplies. They are washing clothes in sinks inside their cell. Their one daily meal is often delivered cold after being left out for hours. They share an 8 by 8 cell with another man for 23 hours and 40 minutes a day, and social distancing is impossible. They are supposed to get 20 minutes outside the cell to take care of necessities like showering, exercise and phone calls daily, but the women say two or three days pass without calls, indicating their family members didn’t get the break from lockdown.

The calls Twyla Brothers gets from her husband inside Green River come at sporadic hours. “It could be 2 a.m., 2 p.m.,” Brothers said. “It just depends on when they let them out, if they let them out.”

Brothers’ husband is an Imam inside Green River, and so he tries to stay positive for the other Muslims inside. “He tries to keep everybody’s morale up,” Brothers said. “But it’s hard, when you see that the people that are supposed to be protecting him, they are not protecting him. So that’s very difficult for him.”

At least nine inmates have filed motions in Jefferson County Circuit Court asking for their release. Lawyers for some inmates argue the conditions inside the facility amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Dr. Frank LoVecchio, a public health expert who is advising the state of Arizona on the virus, has served as a witness for two inmates in such lawsuits. In testimony earlier this month, LoVecchio said it is very unlikely that the coronavirus spread can be contained inside Green River, given that 40% of the inmates have already tested positive.

Families: Keep Them Safe Or Send Them Home

Kate Howard | wfpl.org

The only sure fire way to protect the men, the women of Prison Wives of Green River Correctional Complex say, is to send them home to their families. They’ve issued demands that the governor expand releases to first-time offenders, anyone with underlying health conditions, those whose crimes were committed as youth and those who are at least 55 years old. They’ve also asked the governor to visit Green River himself, instead of relying on reports from the facility.

Shepherd thinks the governor may be reluctant to let out more prisoners because of his previous job as Kentucky Attorney General, the state’s chief law enforcement officer. 

The fact that only a handful of Green River inmates have been freed under the current criteria for commutations has not gone unnoticed by family members like Shepherd. “I don’t understand it, but it didn’t surprise me,” she said.

Experts say letting people out of these facilities may be the only way to truly keep them safe from the coronavirus.

Social distancing and maintaining proper hygiene is nearly impossible, said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative. Bertram said these kinds of problems are built into the prison health care system and are present even when not facing a global pandemic.

“People who are in prison, if they are sick, they can’t just go to the doctor and they can’t just decide what to do to manage their own care,” Bertram said.

“This is why we’ve been talking about the importance of releases,” Bertram said. “Until people are released to be with their families or to be taken care of in the free world, they’re not going to have access to a normal health care system that treats them like people.”