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Kansas Prisons Are Fighting A Lawsuit To Release Prisoners To Reduce COVID-19 Spread

A fence at Topeka Correctional Facility in Topeka, KS.
Nomin Ujiyediin/Kansas News Service
The ACLU sued Kansas prisons in April, seeking the release of more than 5,000 prisoners.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — As coronavirus cases have climbed above 100 in state prisons, the Kansas Department of Corrections is enmeshed in a legal battle that could result in thousands of inmates being released.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas sued the agency and three state prisons on April 9, asking the state to release people who have been convicted of minor crimes, have less than 18 months left on their sentences or are vulnerable due to age or medical conditions.

At the time, less than 20 staff and inmates in the system had tested positive for COVID-19, all of them at the Lansing Correctional Facility in northeast Kansas. As of Thursday, it had increased to 160 cases across four facilities, including a juvenile prison. Less than half of the infected people have recovered, and two people incarcerated at Lansing have died.

Corrections facilities across the U.S. have released people from prisons and jails to prevent the spread of the virus. In Kansas, the Sedgwick County Jail released 200 people in March. Jails in New York City, New Jersey and Detroit also have released hundreds of people. And Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are planning to release more than 1,000 prisoners.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has said she is considering releasing some inmates, though has not announced anything yet.

The ACLU’s lawsuit was originally filed in the Kansas Supreme Court, but later moved to the Leavenworth County Court. The Lansing facility is in Leavenworth County.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the Department of Corrections is endangering the lives of prisoners and violating their constitutional rights by not enforcing proper social distancing or providing adequate soap and cleaning supplies.

Inmates named in the suit alleged the state dilutes cleaning supplies. They also say some prisoners need to buy soap from the commissary, which can be expensive — and prison jobs typically pay pennies an hour.

Other inmates have told the Kansas News Service in emails that despite being given masks and directed to socially distance in some situations, people still sleep and eat in close quarters.

The corrections department argued in court filings that inmates aren’t in substantial danger and that releasing such a large number — an estimated 5,300, more than half of the state’s prison population — would be impractical and dangerous, and could possibly result in people convicted of violent crimes walking free.

The agency also argued in an April 27 court filing that the Leavenworth County Court didn’t have jurisdiction over most of the state’s prisons, which are located elsewhere. It suggested that inmates would face a similar shortage of soap and ventilators outside of prisons and said it wasn’t reasonable to take every possible precaution to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the lawsuit to the Kansas News Service.

ACLU of Kansas Executive Director Nadine Johnson said that releasing people from prison would actually improve public safety by reducing the reach of a deadly virus.

“Every day that we are waiting, these individuals are at an increased risk of contracting the virus,” she said. “And by virtue of that, they’re at risk of spreading to other people.”

The ACLU expects that a judge in Leavenworth County will make a decision soon.

The Department of Corrections announced Thursday that all who are incarcerated there will be tested for COVID-19.

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at nomin (at) kcur (dot) org and follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.

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