Lawrence, Kansas – An explosion of Coronavirus cases in Leavenworth Federal Prison had families and friends of the incarcerated concerned for their loved ones’ mental health as the incarcerated people endured overcrowd-ing and more lockdown restrictions.
In early September 2020, Leavenworth became the pandemic epicenter for the federal prison system. Of the nearly 1,600 incarcerated people housed there, 206 tested positive for COVID-19, along with five staff members, the highest number of cases for any institution in the entire federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), according to the Kansas News Service (KNS).
We do wear masks, except in the dorms,” said Randy Dyke, a 60-year-old minimum-security resident at the prison camp, by email to the KNS. “As for the staff, most do wear masks. However, we have some [staff members] who totally refuse to do so, putting us all at risk,” he added.
Social distancing just wasn’t possible in the prison, Dyke noted. In the minimum-security dorm where he was housed with 25 other men, some residents slept less than four feet apart, said the article. Because of long lines, the incarcerated had to choose between making a phone call or taking a shower, reported some family members to KNS.
“It is just overcrowded here,” Dyke said BOP spokesperson Scott Walker said via email that prisoners whose symptoms were severe were sent to the hospital. But most residents who tested positive were asymptomatic, reported the article.
“Per CDC guidance, a contact-tracing investigation is conducted for each positive case,” said Walker. “While in the general population, any inmate displaying symptoms for COVID-19 will be tested and placed in isolation.”
According to Walker, only five incarcerated people had tested positive for the coronavirus prior to September 1; within two weeks, that number had reached more than 200, with only 8 residents having recovered as of September 14. He said no one had died.
Walker insisted the Bureau of Prisons follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for COVID-19 cases. ‘All staff and inmates have been issued facial coverings and are required to wear them when social distancing is not available per CDC guidelines,” he said.
However, the families of Leavenworth residents were concerned for the well-being of their loved ones.
Dyke’s daughter, Jammie Rothchild, worried her father’s age made him more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“It sucks,” Rothchild told the KNS. “Our hands are tied. There’s nothing we can do.”
One resident who is nearly 70 years old told his wife that the prison medical care was inadequate and that they were advised by medical staff to buy over-the-counter medication from the prison commissary to treat their illness.
Disposable ones were given at first, said Dyke. Later on, residents received three cloth masks and got replacement masks two months after that. He added that the laundry machines were also inadequate because there was not enough hot water to clean the masks. Also, the men didn’t have access to bleach to sanitize them, as many residents washed their masks by hand. Walker, of the BOP, responded that the prison provided appropriate treatment for COVID-19 and that the laundry facilities used enough bleach and hot water to clean clothes adequately. He added that the prison replaced masks regularly, according to the article.
But as coronavirus cases continued to rise, residents faced a lot of uncertainty, said their families.
These guys don’t know if they could wake up tomorrow and be really sick,” said one woman whose husband is at the prison. She spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation against her spouse.
Not only were the men facing the uncertainty of being infected with the virus, but the stress of continuous lock-downs was having an effect on some people. They were confined to their cells for up to 23 hours per day to curb the outbreak, said some family members, which severely limited phone access to call them.
These added restrictions had family and friends worried about their incarcerated loved ones’ mental health as well. Amanda Karch is concerned about her boyfriend, who is at the prison.
“He says he’s depressed. He’s anxious,” Karch said. “He’s just unsure. He doesn’t know what’s going to hap-pen.”
An update to this story is that as of March 4, 2021, the BOP website showed that since the outbreak began, there have been 879 positive tests for COVID-19 at Leavenworth, which currently houses 1,531 inmates.