Kansas prisoners still can't have contact visits with loved ones. Health officials point to COVID-19 guidelines.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Visitation policies at Kansas prisons haven't yet returned to normal, with the Kansas Department of Corrections pointing to COVID-19 mitigation guidance, despite the frustration of families and loved ones.

For many, the most painful part of the COVID-19 pandemic was a lack of physical intimacy — the inability to hug a loved one, to hold their hand, to give them a pat on the back.

The rise in vaccinations has made that a reality for many — but not Trish Gaston.

Gaston's two sons are incarcerated at Lansing Correctional Facility, the largest prison in the state and the site of one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the nation.

Both of her sons have been vaccinated. But when Gaston drove the three hours from her Wichita home to visit them earlier this month, a hug was out of the question — the Kansas Department of Corrections still isn't allowing contact visits.

"It was hard," Gaston said. "I mean, I was thankful to see them. ... But it was just really hard. And you know, I borderline almost broke a rule because I'm like, 'How do I leave here and not hug them.' But I didn't want to take a chance on then losing what I do have."

Gaston was almost unable to see her sons at all. When she pre-registered for a time slot, the online system didn't flag that one of her sons was unable to have visitors on the day she selected — something she only realized when she called to confirm.

While she acknowledges some changes are necessary from the normal system, Gaston said she believed there has to be a better way.

"I think that they (KDOC) feel like this is easy for them," Gaston said. "They don't have very many visitors anymore. People aren't driving to go sit six feet from their loved one for one hour."

As state workers return to the office in person, the Kansas Statehouse reopens and court hearings resume, prison visitation remains one of the areas that hasn't returned to a pre-pandemic norm.

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Visitors must pre-register online and are limited to an hour-long visit — no matter if they are driving 15 minutes or 5 hours. Previously, a full-day meeting could be requested if you were coming from a longer distance — something many families often took advantage of.

Meanwhile, only two individuals can come for an appointment, meaning larger families or those requiring assistance are often shut out. Families with multiple children have to pick and choose which ones get to visit, for instance.

And inmates are forced to socially distance from their loved ones, either sitting across a room or meeting them behind glass, meaning hugs and kisses — the physical affection craved by many during the pandemic — are still not an option.

KDOC says their policies are consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for correctional facilities, which encourage minimizing visits and using mitigation strategies if they occur. Most, but not all, states have imposed similar policies for visitors.

But family members and friends say that doesn't make things any easier.

Brenda Woods, an activist for prison reforms and herself formerly incarcerated, said she had a friend who used to drive across the state to El Dorado Correctional Facility each weekend to visit her son, who is serving a 12-year sentence. They have since stopped due to the restrictions.

"Most of these folks are going to come back out into the community," Woods said. "So their mental health needs to be good. They need to be able to be a productive member of society when they come out."

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Implemented in April, restrictions remain, frustrating loved ones

Kansas, like virtually every other state, limited in-person visitation when COVID-19 struck the state last spring. While visits from attorneys have been allowed to take place for some time, the state relied on video and telephone meetings until physical, in-person visitation resumed April 18.

Other states, such as Vermont and Iowa, only began allowing visitors to return this week and some, like Mississippi, have even more restrictive policies.

That hasn't stopped frustration from families and friends of inmates in Kansas, however.

When the original protocols were rolled out, Audry Piert noted there were concerns but it was the expectation that they would be a starting point and evolve over time.

"Initially, I thought, 'OK, well, it spurred them to give us some kind of answer.' We've opened the door. We've started the process, you know," Piert said. "And so we can take off from here. Well, April to July — clearly, we're not taking off."

The state has offered inmates free visits via video conferencing and also allowed for free telephone calls, although families say the machines were not always functional, leading to conflicts between inmates seeking to see their loved ones.

"If any of your readers think that it was such a fantastic alternative to have these video visits and it should have been good enough," Piert said. "I guess, theoretically, if they all worked and you actually got them, it might have been — but that's not how it went."

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KDOC points to federal guidance in limiting visitation

Families have been frustrated at being unable to have contact visitors with inmates at state prisons, including Lansing Correctional Facility, shown here.

Randy Bowman, director of public affairs for KDOC, said the agency is merely following guidance from the CDC and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

While CDC guidelines more broadly support relaxing social distancing and mask wearing requirements if a person has been vaccinated, that is not necessarily true for prisons. Bowman pointed to a section of its guidelines recommending that facilities "discourage contact visits" and suspend or modify visitation.

Updates as of June 6, however, note that facilities "may consider when to modify facility-level COVID-19 prevention measures."

While this shouldn't occur if transmission is occurring within a prison — something KDOC insists isn't happening — officials should consider vaccination rates, historic COVID-19 spread within a facility and other factors in determining whether to roll back some protocols.

More flexibility is possible if an individual is vaccinated, the guidelines say but masks should continue to be worn — something families say isn't happening for corrections officers, staff and volunteers in KDOC prisons. Bowman said agency protocol continues to recommend masks.

Despite controversy last year over when prisoners should get the COVID-19 vaccine, there is also a wide range of uptake depending on the correctional facility in question.

Data as of mid-June showed a vaccination rate of 43% at Lansing Correctional Facility, the largest prison in the state, all the way up to 84% at Winfield Correctional Facility. Most fell between 65% and 75% — much higher than the vaccination rate among the general public in Kansas.

KDOC reported 44% of staff members had gotten the vaccine, although officials argue that is an undercount as employees who got vaccinated outside and didn't report it to the agency aren't counted.

Because state agencies can't inquire as to a person's vaccination status, mask-wearing and social distancing requirements are still in place for visitors even if they got jabbed — despite the fact that vaccinated visitors to other public buildings can forgo a face covering.

And while Piert said temperature checks and COVID-19 screenings were conducted during her first visit, the practices have since been ditched during each of her subsequent trips. 

"You can go to a weekend event where thousands of people are congregated together, some of them being (correctional officers), and they go right back in with our loved ones with no protection, no mask, no 6-foot distancing, and that's OK," she said. "But the families have to be behind glass or six (feet away), no contact with a mask on for one hour. It's just hypocrisy."

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‘They need to know that they're loved’

For now, the visitation policies appear to be unlikely to change. A memo from KDOC to families last week acknowledged families' anxiety to return to normal but said the "short answer to these questions is we aren’t there yet."

"We continually review the CDC guidelines and our coronavirus protocols, but cannot forecast when these may change," Bowman, the KDOC spokesperson, said in an email. "The KDOC also continues to work closely with and under guidance of KDHE." 

For their part, families and loved ones have said they would have understood the procedures — if there was better communication with the agency.

"We were just basically flat-out ignored," Piert said.

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For Gaston, the mother of two sons, one of her boys has been at Lansing for some time. The other, however, has literally moved across the country in the last year — he was one of several dozen inmates transferred to a private prison in Arizona because of overcrowding at KDOC facilities.

A visit to Phoenix, where he was being held, used to cost thousands of dollars, making an inter-state drive pale in comparison. But Gaston said she is waiting to make her next visit in hopes the policies will change before her trip.

"These people have been struggling for a year-and-a-half — it's not just all of us out here," she said. "And so they need a hug. They need to know that they're loved."