This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
More than 10,000 people are currently held in Kentucky prisons, and nearly 8,000 have been infected with the coronavirus since the pandemic began. This infection rate of nearly 80% is among the worst nationally, according to a new report by the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.
The group graded state prison systems’ response to the coronavirus pandemic based on four categories: efforts to reduce the population of people in prisons, policies to keep the virus at bay, mortality and infection rates and vaccination reach. Kentucky scored higher than all but six states when it came to implementing policies such as suspending medical co-pays and making masks available, but the state earned an “F” for its overall coronavirus response.
Only one state prison system (Michigan) had a higher infection rate and two (New Mexico and New Jersey) had mortality rates than Kentucky, where the coronavirus has so far killed 48 incarcerated people. Six staff have also died, a figure that wasn’t part of the group’s assessment.
Wandra Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, said Kentucky took promising steps last year, when Gov. Andy Beshear commuted the sentences of 1,880 people to reduce the pressure on overcrowded correctional facilities, though most of them were released from local jails, not state-run prisons.
“But what we needed to see this year and last year was prisons taking really decisive action to release people and stop admissions,” Bertram said. “And Kentucky did not do that.”
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found there have been no further steps to significantly reduce the prison population this year and the state has largely failed to stop deadly outbreaks.
Most of the people killed by the coronavirus in Kentucky prisons were housed at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange. The state has no hospital for its prison system, but the reformatory houses the most medically fragile people incarcerated by the state. The virus took hold there in July of 2020 and killed 28 people.
Bertram said the virus’ deadly run through the reformatory shows what a threat the virus still poses to people behind bars.
“Because it is so hard to get a look at what goes on inside prisons, people don’t realize what is meant by a medically vulnerable person,” Bertram said. “If you see photographs of people on these medically vulnerable units, you’re seeing people who are even using walkers, people in wheelchairs are people who can barely move… It’s just baloney for states to say, throughout the pandemic, ‘No, it’s just impossible for us to release these people even temporarily.’”
Kyle Thompson is serving life without parole at the reformatory and caught the coronavirus last year. He said he’s not surprised by Kentucky’s failing grade.
“After people started getting the virus, then they started putting out masks,” Thompson said.
“They didn’t try to quarantine me or anything, they just left me in the general population and it just let the virus spread all over the prison.”
The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.
KyCIR previously reported that state prisons relied on lockdowns and unproven technology in their attempts to keep the virus at bay, but correctional facilities are still overcrowded and often lack space to effectively quarantine.
While Kentucky’s infection and death rates were the highest nationwide, the advocacy group gave an F to 37 other states, plus the federal Bureau of Prisons.
“We gave most states failing grades because they refused to address basic health (and mental health) needs for those trapped inside, they shied away from releasing large numbers of people who could have been safely returned home, all of which contributed to extremely dangerous conditions behind bars,” the report says.
The highest grade was New Jersey’s C-.
The report calls the nation’s handling of the coronavirus behind bars a “shameful failure.”
Nationwide, the virus has claimed more than 2,700 people and infected one out of every 3 people in prison.
There are 33 current cases of COVID-19 at Kentucky prisons, with most at Western Kentucky Correctional Complex.
Contact Jared Bennett at [email protected]