Advocates urge change as virus hits jail, prison

Sedgwick County Jail has released 200 inmates over coronavirus concerns. Department of Corrections is compiling statistics about inmates and their sentences.

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State News

April 3, 2020 - 3:29 PM

A panel of criminal justice officials proposed three specialty prisons that are estimated to cost the state $35 million to renovate and build. NOMIN UJIYEDIIN / KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Advocates are urging Kansas officials to release and safeguard inmates after the state prison system reported its first COVID-19 cases in three staff members and at least one jail worker in the state’s largest city was sickened.

At the Sedgwick County Jail, where officials confirmed Thursday that a detention deputy had tested positive, about 200 inmates have been released since mid-March over concerns about the coronavirus. Positive cases statewide rose Thursday nearly 15% in a single day, to 552. The state’s death toll also rose Friday to 16 after Johnson County reported three more deaths.

The Wichita Eagle reported that Sheriff Jeff Easter said the deputy who tested positive is in isolation at home, and family members are quarantined at home. Coworkers who were around the deputy are still reporting to work. A second employee has also been sent home and will be tested after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Hospital staff said the deputy was presumptive positive.

So far state officials have no plans to release prisoners ahead of scheduled release dates since corrections officials announced Tuesday that three staff members at the Lansing Correctional Facility had tested positive. Gov. Laura Kelly has said her office is “at the exploratory phase.” 

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said Friday that the agency is compiling statistics on how many inmates are behind bars for non-violent offenses and how many have six months or less to go on their sentences. She said about 15 inmates at the Lansing prison have been isolated because they had contact with the three infected staff members, but the department knows of no new coronavirus cases.

The agency already has taken some steps to protect inmates, including closing facilities to visitors and limiting transfers between facilities. 

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Among those urging further changes are the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Kansas Board of Indigents Defense Services, the District of Kansas Federal Public Defenders office and the Midwest Innocence Project.

They are calling in a letter for Kansas to release medically fragile and older adults at high risk for COVID-19 complications, among others. This release, the letter said, would make social distancing easier for those remaining in the jail. Additionally, it would protect the estimated 39-43% of inmates who have underlying health conditions.

The letter warned that failure to act would result in “dire” consequences.

“I’m sure the Department of Corrections and the governor are trying really hard, you can see it,” said Kansas Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers Legislative Chair Jennifer Roth. “But you have got to have fewer people.”

Meanwhile, the governor said that state government will open Monday with reduced services and 70% of its employees working remotely. Kelly ordered state buildings to remain closed through April 19. She had shut down state government, except for essential services, on March 23.

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