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Advocates Call For Changes In Prisons To Reduce Inmates' Exposure To Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

State prisoners have been significantly affected by the coronavirus. At least 220,000 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Tight conditions in buildings makes social distancing and controlling spread difficult. That is the case in Kansas, which has one of the highest infection rates among state prisons. And with access to the vaccine unclear, advocates are calling for changes to reduce exposure. Nomin Ujiyediin of the Kansas News Service reports.

NOMIN UJIYEDIIN, BYLINE: Mari Flowers hasn't seen her daughter, Jordan Fuller, since July. Fuller went to county jail, and then in October, she was transferred to the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state's only women's prison. Kansas prisons haven't allowed visitors since March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But that hasn't worked. The virus made its way into the state's prisons in April. Eleven inmates and three staff members have died. 5,000 inmates in the system have tested positive.

MARI FLOWERS: It's awful to have a child in there no matter their age, you know, even when they're 30.

UJIYEDIIN: Throughout the pandemic, prisoners in Kansas have said social distancing is basically impossible. Everyone has masks, but not every inmate wears them. Not everyone reports their symptoms if they're feeling sick, and people are scared for their health and frustrated by new safety restrictions. Flowers says her daughter has been living in a tent in the prison's laundry building for more than seven weeks until all 60 new arrivals to the prison test negative at the same time. She says her daughter has been tested nine times and has been through four quarantines.

FLOWERS: They put these women in an impossible situation, you know? They're being held where they can't even make it inside the prison.

UJIYEDIIN: Jon-Wesley O'Hara is a corrections officer at the Topeka facility. He says units go in and out of lockdown when someone gets sick. People still move from building to building, and the prison hasn't been disciplining people, so it's hard to enforce mask-wearing. They were understaffed before the pandemic, but even more officers are out now because they're quarantining, taking care of kids or working outbreaks at other prisons. The people who are left sometimes work 16-hour shifts. O'Hara says he tries to be careful and keeps mostly to himself outside of work. But when his roommate, who also works at the prison, tested positive, they had to miss Thanksgiving with their families.

JON-WELSEY O'HARA: I had to call my ex-wife and tell her I can't see my kids for the next two weeks. This is isolating work just by its very nature. Now, you add something like this where you actually have to have that physical separation as well and the stress becomes 10 times greater.

UJIYEDIIN: The Kansas Department of Corrections declined interview requests, but in a statement, spokesman Randy Bowman said the department is working with officials to follow public health guidelines. But criminal justice advocates have said that's not enough. For months, they've argued the best solution is to release people so they can isolate.

Lauren Bonds is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. She helped sue the state to release thousands of inmates this spring. The suit was dismissed, but the ACLU is working on individual clemency applications for prisoners who are vulnerable to the virus.

LAUREN BONDS: The only way to make sure that the transmission rates go down is to make sure that people in prisons can observe the same, you know, protocols that that we're being told to observe out here in the community.

UJIYEDIIN: Governor Laura Kelly's office says she's still considering the requests. As for a vaccine, health care workers in Kansas prisons and jails will be among the first to receive it. But there's no news on whether inmates or other staff will be next. For NPR News, I'm Nomin Ujiyediin in Lawrence, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.