Ky. federal prison still won't test everyone despite deaths, mass infections
Prison employees are encouraged to get tested, but it isn't mandatory and nobody is overseeing the effort
By John Cheves
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Despite a COVID-19 outbreak that had killed four inmates and infected at least 216 inmates and staff as of Friday, the Federal Medical Center in Lexington still is not testing everyone on its campus to determine how far the illness has spread inside the prison.
Instead, prison officials say they are only doing “targeted testing” of some inmates in certain areas of the prison complex on Leestown Road. Prison employees are encouraged to get tested, but it isn’t mandatory and nobody is overseeing the effort, officials said.
Critics say this limited effort falls far short of what is needed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Kentucky Corrections Department agreed to universal testing at Green River Correctional Complex, a state prison in Muhlenberg County, after a massive outbreak there killed three inmates. Gov. Andy Beshear later said the testing uncovered many cases that were asymptomatic, which means inmates and staff were carrying and spreading the virus but did not have a fever, cough or other symptoms.
“My biggest concern is the safety and well-being of the staff,” said Robin Goode, a corrections officer at the Federal Medical Center and president of Local 817, the officers’ union. “But this is also a significant health threat to the community. We’re talking about a large number of cases out here, and the staff are coming and going every day. We don’t want to be taking it in or bringing it out with us.”
As for the inmates, Goode said, “I was really surprised to learn they’re not testing all the inmates. I just assumed they would be.”
“There are at least three three housing units that haven’t been tested,” Goode said. “I asked the other day if they are going to test those inmates. I was told no, not unless some of them start showing symptoms. Well, by the time people are showing symptoms, it’s too late, isn’t it? They’re all infected and exposed to each other in lockdown. I just don’t understand some of these decisions.”
Nationwide, at least 1,735 federal prison inmates and 191 staff have been infected with the novel coronavirus since March, with 59 inmate deaths.
Among the groups calling for universal testing in federal prisons are the ACLU and the Council of Prison Locals, which represents more than 30,000 prison employees.
“We believe that there are likely thousands of additional cases among officers and incarcerated people that haven’t been reported because of the lack of testing,” the groups said earlier this month. “Anything less than immediate drastic action constitutes a lack of regard for the lives of tens of thousands of correctional professionals and millions of incarcerated people and their families.”
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons won’t publicly say how many of the 1,404 federal inmates in Lexington have been tested. The Federal Medical Center has an Abbott ID NOW device for rapid testing, but its use is limited, prison officials say.
“FMC Lexington is not presently conducting mass testing for the entire institution at this time. Targeted testing is utilized as needed,” said Justin Long, spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons in Washington.
According to the bureau’s COVID-19 website, 212 Lexington prison inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, of whom four have died and 27 have recovered.
The website says four Lexington prison employees have tested positive, of whom three have recovered. However, Goode, the corrections officer, disputed those figures.
“I know of between eight and 10 staff who were infected,” Goode said. “One of them was hospitalized for a while and then released.”
The Lexington-Fayette Health Department this week said it has distributed 400 self-testing kits at the federal prison for employees to use. So far, 165 employees have returned at least one test, one of whom got a positive result, said department spokesman Kevin Hall.
“They are not required to do it,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, there are some people who just won’t agree to be tested.”
Apart from the self-test kits, some prison staff are getting tested by professionals at various health providers, Hall said. But if they go outside Fayette County — many of the prison’s 496 employees live outside Lexington — then the health department won’t necessarily learn of it, he said.
Goode, who lives in Nelson County, said she was tested for the virus last Friday at an urgent treatment center in her community. The result came back negative on Tuesday, to her relief.
“I know staff here who have not picked up the health department’s test kit but they tell me they went to Walgreens or Walmart or someplace like that and got swabbed,” Goode said. “But I can’t give you numbers. I don’t know who has been tested and who hasn’t, and I don’t think anyone does.”
©2020 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)