- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2020

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A civil rights group asked the Kansas Supreme Court on Thursday to immediately release prisoners who have preexisting medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed the class action petition on behalf of seven inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility, the Ellsworth Correctional Facility and the Topeka Correctional Facility. They are seeking an expedited hearing before the state’s highest court on the request by the named plaintiffs and other inmates in similar situations.

“Petitioners are housed in crowded facilities with limited access to adequate medical treatment and sanitation supplies,” the ACLU said in the petition. “Several petitioners also have preexisting medical conditions that make them uniquely vulnerable to serious complications and death if they contract the COVID-19 virus - which has already infected both staff and individuals housed within Kansas prisons.”

The Kansas Department of Corrections has reported infections in 14 staff and 12 inmates at the Lansing facility.

The lawsuit contends that the release would not only prevent harm to vulnerable inmates, but would also sufficiently reduce prison populations to ensure proper social distancing and reduce transmission of the virus to remaining inmates.

“When inmates who are over 50 and suffering from diabetes or Hep C are forced to stand, sleep and eat within six feet of other inmates, we are literally putting people’s lives at risk,” ACLU Legal Director Lauren Bonds said in a statement. “This is an emergency situation requiring urgent action.”

It also seeks to immediately free inmates who are within 18 months of completing their sentences as well as those imprisoned for minor offenses.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday that prison officials have identified “several hundred” inmates who are close to the end of their sentences and have viable plans, such as a place to live, and are “executing plans to release them.”

Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said in an emailed statement that state officials recognize that inmates and prison staff are especially at risk of infection and have taken steps to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in corrections facilities.

Those include removing the $2 fee for primary medical visits to ensure everyone can afford to report symptoms. The department provides residents with soap at each hand-washing station.

But there are no immediate plans to release anyone ahead of their scheduled date. Kelly and state prison officials are examining additional options to minimize the impact of the virus in Kansas prisons, Witte said.

Cloth masks made by Kansas Correctional Industries will be distributed to inmates beginning Thursday. For all adult males entering facilities, the state has set up an intake isolation unit at Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, where they will spend 14 days being monitored for symptoms.


Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this report.

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