Detainees say private prison denies COVID-19 tests, treatment while awaiting trial

CoreCivic disputes allegations, says health protocols are followed

By: - November 30, 2020 5:45 pm
The Kansas Department of Corrections says a 12th inmate incarcerated in state prison facilities died of COVID-19. The latest was a 62-year-old man at Hutchinson Correctional Facility. (Getty Images)

The ACLU and public defenders in the region wrote to Leavenworth County officials and the White House urging them to shut down a privately-run pre-trial detention facility by the end of this year. (Getty Images)

TOPEKA — People awaiting trial at CoreCivic’s Leavenworth prison for federal detainees say the private company has failed to provide adequate testing or medical care amid an “uncontrolled outbreak” of COVID-19.

First-person accounts and court documents reveal the facility’s staff hasn’t provided testing for detainees who were exposed to the virus and in some cases refused to test detainees who developed symptoms. Those who are sick are commingled with others in pods of up to 70 people.

In one case, after initially detecting dangerously low blood oxygen levels for a detainee, staff has avoided checking his levels again.

A spokesman for CoreCivic, which contracts with the U.S. Marshal’s Service to house the pretrial detainees, said the allegations made in interviews with Kansas Reflector and in legal records are “patently false.” The company declined to say how many individuals have been tested or how many staff and residents have tested positive.

Melody Brannon, federal public defender for Kansas, said CoreCivic for eight months has refused to provide comprehensive testing and has at times dismissed widespread symptoms of COVID-19 as allergies or common colds.

“At this point, there is no way to assess who was ill and untreated, and who will suffer lasting damage to their health as the result of CoreCivic’s refusal to responsibly respond to the pandemic,” Brannon said. “Employees who work at that facility live in the community. Detainees move into and out of the facility on a daily basis. CoreCivic has been reckless, or at least indifferent, to public health and the health of our clients who are in federal custody.”

James Chrisman, one of more than 800 detainees at the Leavenworth facility, said he became sick in early November with symptoms of COVID-19 after another person in his 70-man unit tested positive for the virus.

Medical staff gave him treatment for a cold.

“There was a guy in here that had it,” Chrisman said. “They quarantined, but they didn’t test nobody. And now, there are like five other people in here that got it, but they still have not tested nobody. This place is crazy.”

Frightening revelations

Ann Sagan, an assistant public defender, filed an emergency motion in federal court last week seeking the release of Antonio Brown until his trial.

Antonio Brown tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 22 while detained at the federal pretrial prison in Leavenworth. Brown’s mother and other detainees question CoreCivic’s handling of an apparent outbreak at the facility. (Submitted by Carla Brown to Kansas Reflector)

Because of the absence of information from the facility, Sagan wrote in the court filing, attorneys rely on clients to inform them about positive cases, medical care and protocols.

“What we have learned,” she wrote, “is frightening.”

“The reality of an uncontrolled outbreak at CoreCivic has arrived,” Sagan wrote. “Anecdotal reports from clients indicate that the virus is widespread, and that many with symptoms are denied tests or treatment. Yet the facility itself has refused to freely provide information.”

After initially being denied medical help, Brown tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 22. A nurse recorded his blood oxygen levels were in the high 70s, which is considered to be life-threatening.

“Brown reports that the medical staff has never again checked his oxygen levels, even though this is a primary indicator of illness, severity and the need for immediate medical attention,” Sagan wrote in the filing.

Brown’s symptoms include respiratory problems, chest pains, congestion, fatigue, lack of appetite and muscle pain. He also has asthma, and CoreCivic has refused to replace his broken inhaler.

His mother, Carla Brown, said staff removed him from his unit a day or two after he tested positive. He initially was placed in a room with three other men who also had symptoms of COVID-19. By Thanksgiving, he was moved to a room where he suffers alone with little attention, she said.

Nobody answers the intercom in his room, Carla Brown said. A nurse checks on him in the morning. No medical staff are available at night. He hasn’t showered or changed his clothes in a week.

“He told me there was a lump in the center of his chest and it was hurting,” the mother said. “And he told me he couldn’t breathe, and they did nothing.”

Proactive measures

Ryan Gustin, public affairs manager for CoreCivic, said the staff at its Leavenworth Detention Center follow the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The claims and allegations you cite from your inmate and family interviews do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 that LDC have been taking for months,” Gustin said. “We care deeply for our hardworking, dedicated employees and the people in our care, and we’re committed to their health and safety. We work hard to ensure that they have the necessary tools to feel safe every day.”

He said there has been “no systemic denial of tests or treatment for symptomatic individuals,” and any claims otherwise were “patently false.”

Three detainees and the girlfriend of a fourth describe an “unsafe environment” where health guidelines are discarded and testing is reserved for the most serious cases.

Jacob Gish said the 70 people in the unit with him and Chrisman weren’t able to leave their area, which he estimated to be 50 by 100 feet, for about three weeks, starting Nov. 5.

At least one person in the unit tested positive, Gish said, and 35-40 appeared to have symptoms that included headache, sore throat, body aches and coughs. Sick and healthy detainees were intertwined, 10 to a cell, within the unit.

Gish said he asked for a test when he developed symptoms and was declined.

“They’re only doing the testing if it’s an emergency, like shortness of breath, chest pains, high fever,” he said.

Another detainee, James Toliver, said he is concerned for his health after suffering a mild heart attack on Nov. 18. He has an enlarged heart with a hole in it, he said, making him vulnerable to complications if he contracts COVID-19.

“There are so many COVID cases in here,” Toliver said. “They’re not doing anything about the situation.”

Lois Collins said her boyfriend, who is detained at the Leavenworth facility, tested positive for COVID-19 after losing his taste and smell. She asked that he not be identified for fear of retaliation from prison officials.

“He says it’s a very unsafe environment,” Collins said. “He says they are putting COVID positive people with the non-positive people in the same unit.”

When detainees get sick, she said, they are confined to their bed, and nobody comes back to check on them.

“He could have very well been at home and not caught this infection,” Collins said. “Sitting down there in this environment is crazy. They’ve got the right to a safe environment when they’re in jail, but this is not it.”

Nothing to report

Kansas law requires medical personnel to report cases of infectious disease, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment was unaware of any reports of COVID-19 at the CoreCivic facility in Leavenworth.

Gustin, the CoreCivic spokesman, wouldn’t say how many people have been tested or how many have tested positive at the CoreCivic facility. Those questions were referred to the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

“As of Nov. 30, we have received reports of 17 U.S. Marshals prisoners at the Leavenworth Detention Center having tested positive for COVID-19 at any point during the pandemic, with 10 prisoners having since recovered,” said Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman at U.S. Marshals headquarters. “There have been no COVID-related deaths of USMS prisoners at the facility.”

The data is not real-time, she said, and may not reflect the most current information.

Any positive cases are reported to the local health agency by the lab the company uses for tests, Gustin said. The Leavenworth County Health Department’s online dashboard shows just two reported infections at the CoreCivic facility.

The private prison company, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, manages dozens of prisons and detention facilities across the country. CoreCivic has faced a multitude of civil lawsuits over conditions for inmates and workers, including lawsuits over the recording of meetings and phone calls between attorneys and their clients at the Leavenworth Detention Center.

CoreCivic hired former Kansas Department of Corrections secretary Joe Norwood as a consultant after he negotiated a $362 million deal for the company to build and operate a new state prison in Lansing. A state audit scrutinized the cost of that deal, and Norwood was fined $5,000 by an ethics panel for accepting the $100,000 job from CoreCivic after leaving the state.

Because of overcrowding and staffing problems in state prisons, Kansas last year contracted with CoreCivic to send up to 600 inmates to the company’s private prison in Arizona.

Prisons and jails have been epicenters for COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic. The Kansas Department of Corrections has reported thousands of cases of COVID-19 at its facilities.

Brannon, the federal public defender, said she believes the numbers at CoreCivic’s Leavenworth facility should be similar to the nearby state prison in Lansing, where there have been 987 confirmed cases among 1,700 inmates.

“The difference is that they have refused, thus far, to do comprehensive testing,” Brannon said. “No test, no positive test results to report.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.