In COVID Lockdown, Conditions At Indiana Women’s Prison Unhealthy, Advocates Say

Jun 25, 2020

The Indiana Women’s Prison has taken hard measures to contain the coronavirus. Many inmates in the prison have spent long periods locked in their cells — which have no toilets, running water or air conditioning — with limited opportunities for relief. 

As temperatures rise over the summer months, advocates and those with loved ones inside certain housing units, known as the cottages, worry about the heat and long periods of confinement. They fear it could cause health problems for the inmates, and say that the treatment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. 

“It is unacceptable, and actually, it’s torture,” says Kelsey Kauffman, an advocate who used to run the Higher Education Program in the prison in Indianapolis and has stayed in touch with inmates there. “They’re using the pandemic as an excuse to do this to them, and they need to stop now.”

Kauffman and others also worry about the locked cell doors if an emergency arises, since the doors must be unlocked individually, and some are difficult to open. 

Last week, Kauffman sent a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb outlining these concerns, requesting that cell doors remain unlocked to help with bathroom access, air circulation and fire safety. 

The Indiana Department of Correction denied her request. 

Officials declined to be interviewed, but emailed a statement in response to questions and issues raised in this story. 

“The Indiana Women’s Prison is a maximum security prison and reasonable precautions are taken to ensure not only the security, but the health and welfare of the women incarcerated at the prison,” the statement says.

The women’s prison, which houses roughly 640 inmates, has reported 25 COVID-19 cases, although there are currently no active infections or prisoners in isolation or quarantine. Total cases for all Indiana prisons have topped 700, and in three facilities, more than 100 prisoners have tested positive. 

“I’m very, very worried about the women and COVID,” says Kauffman, but she argues locking the doors is unnecessary to stem the spread of the virus, and it’s too harsh. The cottages are built differently than Indiana’s other maximum security prisons, which are mostly for men. 

Kelsey Kauffman, in green, used to run the Higher Education Program at the Indiana Women's Prison.
Credit Courtesy of Kauffman

“They’re treating the women far worse than any man in the state is being treated,” she says. 

‘Not just some prisoners being hot’

An employee at Indiana Women’s Prison, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to speak to the media, also disagrees with the notion that the women there should be treated the same as inmates in other maximum security facilities. 

“That argument just breaks down very quickly,” says the employee. “It’s not set up like a maximum security men’s prison. It wasn’t built that way.” Most of the cottages don’t have air conditioning, the employee says, and inmates in other Indiana prisons have better access to toilets, running water, and air circulation. 

“Being locked in, I think people don’t understand that it’s not just some prisoners being hot,” the employee says. 

Inmates can refill water cups on bathroom breaks, but drinking it can come at a cost, so many inmates are dehydrated. “They are afraid that they’ll have to go to the bathroom more and they’ll have accidents, and that’s very embarrassing for them,” the employee says. 

Some have even stopped taking blood pressure or other medications that may cause them to urinate more frequently. 

Prisoners in the cottages, each of which houses dozens of inmates, rely on a single correctional officer to manually unlock their door for bathroom breaks.

“It’s on their time,” says Nicole Hayes, a former inmate released in February who still talks with women inside. “If they don’t feel like it, you’re not going.” 

“The officers told the women to stop drinking water, so then they wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom,” says one mother, who asked to remain anonymous because she worried her daughter would be punished. 

“Inmates are urinating in trash cans or whatever they can,” Chiquita Armstead, whose daughter is incarcerated at the women’s prison, said in May.

In its written statement, the corrections department said that “all the women have had, and continue to have regular access to running water, toilets and shower facilities as well as medical services and access to prescribed medications.” 

Stifling heat

The employee and others worry that summer heat will compound those problems. Most of the cottages lack air conditioning, and the temperature inside is often many degrees hotter than outside.

“I’ve been in those buildings with the doors open, and it is intolerably hot in there,” says Kauffman.

It’s even worse in the cells, which have doors, rather than bars. Two to four women live in each cell, cut off from air circulation in the hallway. The window openings are too small to make much difference, and some don’t open. 

High temperatures can cause heat stroke or even death, and exacerbate other health conditions—- which many prisoners have. In 2006, two prisoners at the Indiana State Prison died at least in part because of high temperatures. 

One inmate says she’d prefer solitary confinement, where there’s air conditioning. “I’d rather be on lock than cooking inside this room,” she wrote to former inmate Hayes. 

The corrections department statement says that inmates are able to spend some time outside their cells for recreation and other activities. Some also have jobs that provide additional time outside or in other parts of the prison. But the spokesperson declined to provide specifics on how much scheduled time inmates are allowed out of their cells.

The prison employee and Kauffman estimate that most inmates still spend roughly 18 hours a day locked in their cells. 

Indiana state Sen. J.D. Ford

Indiana state Sen. J.D. Ford, whose district includes the prison, says he expressed concerns to Holcomb and the corrections department, but was told the prison is unwilling to change its policy. 

“There wasn’t a lot of urgency on this request,” he says. “To me this is just unacceptable. These are human beings, and we need to do what we can to care for them.“

In case of fire

One prisoner recently told her friend, Deb Trice, that an officer told her to urinate in a cup when he couldn’t unlock her cell door. “Now had that been a medical emergency or a fire or something like that — that’s bad,” says Trice, who was released from the prison in July. 

Even if doors didn’t get stuck, it would take time for an officer to unlock all the doors in an emergency. 

“There’s no way they would get everything open,” says the employee. 

“At some point the officer is going to stop trying to unlock the doors and worry about their own safety,” says Kris Bussey, a former inmate who was released in October. 

Multiple former inmates reported that in 2014, a correctional officer was asleep when a fire broke out in one part of the prison. No alarm sounded, but a prisoner smelled smoke and was able to alert others. At that time, the cell doors were unlocked. The department did not dispute the inmates’ account. 

“We all could have been injured or died from smoke inhalation,” wrote one former inmate, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s on parole. 

Last week, Kauffman and other advocates called for an unannounced fire inspection in the facility while the doors are locked. On Wednesday, the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office went to the prison and “found the facility in compliance with fire codes regarding the emergency unlocking and evacuation of a correctional facility,” according to the corrections department statement. 

The spokesperson would not provide more details. The fire marshal’s office told Side Effects no fire drill was conducted, and one prisoner wrote to Kauffman later that day: “The prison purposefully left the cell doors open until 10 a.m., after they left.”

Long-term changes

The prison employee told Side Effects that the lockdown at the women’s prison consists of five stages, but that even staff doesn’t understand what those stages mean. “Confusion is very high,” the employee says. 

But at no stage did the employee think the prison doors would be unlocked all day. They said that prison administration has tried in the past to implement a locked-doors policy, but that some prisoners had passed out from the heat and staff pushed back against the idea. 

This is something that they're doing to punish them.

The coronavirus outbreak gave the administration’s efforts new life: “My take is this is their second try,” the employee says, adding that the facility already has other methods of reducing spread of the coronavirus. 

“There’s really no reason to think the doors are being locked due to positive COVID cases,” says the employee. “I feel like they’re trying to push us in the wrong direction.”

The department spokesperson declined to provide additional details on the lockdown policy, and did not answer when asked how long it would continue or whether any stages of lockdown include unlocking or opening cell doors. 

“This is not something that they’re doing to protect the women,” says Kauffman. “This is something that they’re doing to punish them.”

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. Jake Harper can be reached at jharper@wfyi.org. He's on Twitter @jkhrpr.