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From an abundance of caution and luck, the Kentucky State Penitentiary (KSP) remained COVID-19 free until Sunday, July 26, 2020. 

At midday that day, KSP was placed on lockdown. One day later, prisoners received a memo from Warden Hart, stating that it was her duty to inform them that a prisoner had tested positive for COVID-19 at KSP. It was later learned that the prisoner had already died the morning of July 27. 

Warden Hart retired four days after issuing the July 27 memo, though the retirement had nothing to do with the COVID-19 case. She had already announced she would retire on July 31, 2020.

At the time this report was written, in August 2020, there has also been at least one staff member to test positive for COVID-19. KSP remained on lockdown.

The senior administration provided information about COVID-19 with numerous hygiene tips. In these memos they stress to do the following: 

  • Wash your hands after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose. Trash or flush your tissue after every use. 
  • Wash your hands after using the restroom.
  • Wash your hands before food preparation and eating. Frequent regular hand washing. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Be sure to wash all parts of the hands, tops, palms, in between fingers, around the wrists and under the nails. Rinse hands with water flowing to the ends of the fingertips. Dry hands on a paper towel, utilize the paper towel to turn off the water and open the door if needed.

Kentucky’s Death Row is located at KSP and currently houses 26 men ranging in age from the mid-40s to the mid-70s. The former day shift officer for Death Row was concerned with how much tissue and paper towels were being used. He convinced the senior unit administrator to keep the shared restroom locked and have prisoners go to their cells to use the restroom or to wash their hands. 

Due to the age of Death Row prisoners, several take blood pressure medication, water pills and other medications. Some have to use the restroom often, not just during the day while out of the cells for recreation but at night as well. Sending convicts to their cells to use the restroom only lasted for one day. The former day shift officer got tired of having the cell doors often opened and closed.

The next move the former walk office came up with was to convince the senior unit administrator to not let prisoners go to their cells to use the restroom or wash their hands on demand. Instead he planned to open the restroom up one time each hour. The senior unit administrator again agreed to do as he requested. Prisoners held skepticism over whether a group of older men would be able to coordinate restroom use, sneezing, coughing, and hand washing on this schedule. 

It seems the senior administration was so focused on the big picture that they were not paying close attention to how the junior administration handled hygiene issues. KSP was locked down but the policy on the Death Row restroom only being opened once each hour was still in effect at the time this report was filed.

It should be pointed out that KSP is gravely understaffed.

Here at KSP, the right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing. Early on, prevention with a lot of luck seemed to work well. Once COVID-19 arrived at KSP, the staff seemed to be overwhelmed and ill prepared, reflected by restroom procedure and the small  sack lunches they are feeding prisoners three times a day. But that’s a story for another day.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Robert M. is a Mexican-Irish writer incarcerated in California.