Lansing inmate describes riot over health conditions, ongoing problems, and family members fear the worst for prisoners with underlying health problems
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TOPEKA — At 4:37 p.m. April 9, Mark Montgomery sent an alarming email to his father.
"Dad, they’re starting to riot in C2," the inmate wrote from a computer terminal at his cell house at Lansing prison. "I’m not participating. It’s all bad. Love you, talk to you soon, hopefully."
His parents and two children didn't hear from him again for 12 days.
In a phone interview Tuesday from the Lansing Correctional Facility, Montgomery described the fear and anger of inmates left defenseless against an outbreak of COVID-19 in a setting where social distancing is virtually impossible, many are vulnerable, and protective supplies are out of reach.
"I promise you, a lot of us had the coronavirus," Montgomery said. "I done sweated that one out in my cell, when I was locked down for five or six days. Luckily, I'm 31 years old and in good shape. Some of these older guys are scared to death."
Corrections officials announced Wednesday a second inmate had died from the virus at the state-run Lansing prison, where 76 inmates and 75 staff members have tested positive. The first fatality was on Sunday.
Family members of Lansing inmates echo concerns about haphazard safety precautions that could turn probation violations into death sentences.
"They’re not getting help in there," said Laurena Bradley, whose incarcerated brother, Glen Givens, suffers from sickle cell anemia and other health problems. "It’s not just my brother. None of them are getting help. It’s not fair. I mean, I know they’ve done something to be in there, but they don’t deserve to be treated like animals and just thrown to the wolves and just say, ‘Forget them.’ "
Gov. Laura Kelly has said her administration is working to identify inmates who are near their release date and have a viable plan for re-entering their communities. She said she would announce more details Thursday about the potential for releasing prisoners early.
"Are people social distancing all the time in our prison system? No," the governor said. "It's just not an environment that allows for that. What the Department of Corrections has done is do as much as they can do to ensure there's not a lot of excessive mingling of folks."
Jennifer Roth, a Topeka attorney with the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said there is no mystery behind the tragedy at Lansing. One month ago, she and other advocates for Kansas prisoners sent a letter to the governor pleading for protection of vulnerable inmates.
They pointed to experiences in other prisons around the country, where even the best medical care couldn’t stop the spread of COVID-19 in cramped spaces. They warned that inmates would die in Kansas without swift action from the administration.
"We knew what could happen, and it did happen," Roth said. "When I found out that resident died — it’s like watching something for 29 days in slow motion and it doesn’t feel like people are doing enough to prevent it. You can see what’s going to happen, you don’t know when or to whom, and it’s just the worst."
Sickness, riot, chaos, despair
Montgomery said a lockdown that prevented inmates from showering fueled the April 9 riot, in which inmates seized control of their cell house for eight hours.
A black inmate angrily confronted a white officer about not being able to shower, Montgomery said. The officer wrote the inmate up for making a threatening gesture and had him "taken to the hole." Other inmates then refused to go their cells and demanded answers.
Concerned for their safety, the guards abandoned their post, leaving 169 inmates locked inside the cell house without supervision.
"There were people running around with swords and knives," Montgomery said. "I mean, this is Lansing. It's not the best place to be."
Inmates also had drugs and cellphones, which had been smuggled inside by corrupt guards, and published online videos of the unfolding chaos. Inside an administrative office, prisoners discovered a box of protective equipment that had been withheld from them.
Authorities regained control by deploying tear gas. They entered through the back shower door, Montgomery said, and tied everyone's hands with zip ties. Inmates were taken outside into the cold, where their shoes were removed and clothes were cut off. They were marched in their underwear to the newly constructed prison facility and left in their cells for six days.
John and Betty Montgomery worried about what happened to their son. They couldn't reach him by phone or email while Kansas Department of Corrections officials investigated the riot.
The father, a Marine Corps veteran, said he was scared for his son's safety. The son's children, ages 12 and 10, would ask every day, "Have you heard from my daddy? Is daddy OK?"
"You can’t tell them anything," John Montgomery said. "You say, ‘I don’t know,’ and they’re asking, ‘why not?’ and, ‘why can’t we talk to our daddy?’ That’s what hurt worse, to put the kids through that, when it was just as easy to let them have access to a damned computer. They’re so worried they might get on a website where a loved one may show them a breast. They wanted to see their children. They wanted to see their family."
Mark Montgomery is halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for drug and burglary convictions. As a porter at the prison, he was ordered before the riot to clean the cell of an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19. Montgomery's only protection was a pair of gloves.
For days after the riot, Montgomery said, inmates didn't receive a change of clothes or shower. Covered in tear gas, he developed rashes. An employee who later tested positive for the coronavirus delivered cold food, slow walked from the old prison kitchen to the new facility. The inmates waited two weeks to receive personal belongings from their old cells.
They don't have access to hand sanitizer or disinfectants, Montgomery said. There was no way to clean the phone before making a call. Earlier this week, he went outside for the first time since the riot.
"It's like they don't even care about us," Montgomery said. "It's like, 'Ah, screw 'em, they don't need a mask.' They have such lousy attitudes about any of our safety or hygiene or any of that."
Vulnerable and hopeless
Mark Robins went to prison for growing marijuana — which was actually rogue ditch weed, his sister says — in his vegetable garden in Wichita.
The 62-year-old now has terminal cancer, requires oxygen support and is kept in an infirmary at Lansing where other inmates go to recover from COVID-19. He told his sister about receiving food from a sweaty, coughing employee and being treated by a nurse who tested positive for the virus.
Rene Brockus wants to "get him out alive" but worries he won’t make it to his June 8 release date. He has a year or two to live.
"The Lord gives us strength each day, and I’m just trusting the Lord will protect him," Brockus said.
Deana Estrada, of Junction City, is worried about her fiance, Ronnie Loggins. The 39-year-old Lansing inmate also has cancer.
Estrada said guards aren’t wearing masks like they are supposed to. She also expressed concerns with inmates who are obviously sick but refuse medical assistance because they don’t want to be quarantined.
Loggins requires treatment from the University of Kansas hospital, Estrada said, but the hospital recently denied him entry because the employee responsible for transporting Loggins had been exposed to COVID-19.
"I just want my 1-year-old son to have a dad," Estrada said. "I want to survive his incarceration."
He is in prison for being a drug addict, she said. He failed a drug test while on probation for a drug-related crime. His earliest release date is three years away.
Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said staff members aren’t required to wear protective equipment at all times, based on recommendations from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Sick inmates may be hiding symptoms from staff, Witte said, and may refuse medical care. However, she said, inmates who are suspected of having COVID-19 are quarantined even if they refuse to be tested.
KDHE secretary Lee Norman said the agency on Wednesday took samples of 239 inmates at Lansing, including those who don’t have symptoms, to get a better idea of how far the virus has spread.
The ACLU of Kansas earlier this month filed a petition with the Kansas Supreme Court seeking the early release of inmates who are nearing their release date or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious illness. The court redirected the class action lawsuit to Leavenworth District Court, where a potentially lengthy legal process awaits.
Prison conditions make it impossible to practice recommendations by health officials, said Nadine Johnson, executive director of ACLU of Kansas.
"It is also critical for everyone to recognize how interconnected we are," Johnson said. "Inadequate measures taken in these facilities affect not only the incarcerated but also the correctional facility staff, medical personnel, clergy and others who leave the facility and return to their homes, their families and their communities, thereby also increasing the external risk."
Bradley, the woman whose brother suffers from sickle cell anemia, said the Kansas City native is serving a 17-year sentence in Lansing for "being a junkie." His earliest release date is in 2027.
She is afraid her brother won’t live through the pandemic and that the family won’t be able to have a funeral for him because of the ban on large public gatherings.
"There’s pretty much no hope," Bradley said.