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Kansas Prisons Battle 89 Cases Among Inmates, Staff

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service

The coronavirus has arrived at a third correctional facility in Kansas, taking total infections among inmates and corrections staff statewide to 89, state officials said Tuesday.

The Kansas Department of Corrections said a worker tested positive Monday for COVID-19 at the the Topeka Correctional Facility, the state’s only all-female prison.

By far the largest outbreak is at the Lansing Correction Facility, where 47 staff — about 12% of the prison’s workforce — and 40 inmates are infected. An inmate at a work-release facility in Wichita also tested positive earlier this month, prompting corrections officials to move 113 prisoners to Lansing, where the sickened inmate is being treated in the infirmary and the others are being quarantined in a new prison building.

Another 20 Lansing-based inmates who may have been exposed but aren’t showing symptoms are quarantined in a separate area of the new building, said Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

She said there have been no deaths among staff and inmates at the three facilities, and none of the work-release inmates from Wichita have tested positive since the move.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Witte said tests are mostly reserved for staff and inmates who are showing symptoms, although research shows many infected people never get sick. Witte said the department is following the testing guidance of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which has implanted a staff member at Lansing to help.

Witte said women in the Topeka prison and men in the Hutchinson prison are making cloth masks, and all inmates and corrections staff statewide have been issued two each. They are encouraged to wear them when they are in close proximity to others.

The outbreak has complicated staffing at Lansing, where 1,736 inmates are currently held. A lockdown that began earlier this month after a disturbance in which inmates rampaged through offices, breaking windows and setting small fires is continuing because it reduces staffing needs. Witte said a handful of National Guardsmen are helping provide medical care and that some central office staff are helping with administrative work.

Lansing prison workers are also beginning to move inmates from dormitory-style units in the old part of the prison to a new building, where they can be more spaced out in an area separate from the medically quarantined inmates. The new facility also requires less staffing.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas has argued in a lawsuit that releasing vulnerable inmates would allow proper social distancing and reduce transmission of the virus among the remaining prisoners. Facilities have been hard-hit nationally.

With advocacy groups demanding action, Gov. Laura Kelly has said efforts are underway to identify inmates who are close to finishing their sentences and could be released. Witte said corrections officials are waiting for guidance from Kelly’s office.

Statewide, confirmed coronavirus cases increased Tuesday by 39 to 2,025. The number of deaths increased by seven to 107. The state’s largest cluster is at Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation in Kansas City, Kansas, where the death toll has increased to 24 with another 92 residents and staff infected.

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