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Kansas Gives Inmates Cloth Masks For Coronavirus, ACLU Lawsuit Says 'Lives At Risk'

While prisoners worry about getting the coronavirus in close quarters, public defenders push for their release.
While prisoners worry about getting the coronavirus in close quarters, public defenders push for their release.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday calling for the Kansas Supreme Court to order the release of state prisoners whose lives it contends stand at special risk from the coronavirus.

The lawsuit asks the court to release people incarcerated for minor crimes, within 18 months of release, or who have medical conditions that would make them especially vulnerable to the virus.

It also calls on the state to develop a housing and support plan for released prisoners who test positive for COVID-19 and have nowhere to go.

State prisons are poorly equipped to enforce social distancing and cleaning supplies and soap are inadequate, the ACLU contends.

James Hadley, incarcerated at Lansing Correctional Facility, is named as a plaintiff. In an exhibit attached to the lawsuit, he said only inmates who make $12 or less a month are given free soap. He does not receive any soap, despite the fact that he has Hepatitis C, because he makes more than $12 a month.

Monica Burch, also named in the lawsuit, said cleaning supplies given to inmates at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility are “seriously watered down” and inadequate for cleaning cells.

“My cell is 8-foot by 7-foot and I share it with a roommate,” Burch said in the lawsuit. “When you are locked in a cell this small, it is physically impossible to stay 6 feet away from each other.”

Other plaintiffs named in the lawsuit said dozens to hundreds of prisoners still congregate on a regular basis for meals and recreation. Others said sick inmates often have to wait for long periods to see a doctor or get medical treatment.

In a statement, the Kansas Department of Corrections said it’s not currently planning to release people ahead of their scheduled dates. It declined to comment on the allegations that it does not provide adequate soap or cleaning materials.

In recent weeks, the department has banned visits, increased screening of employees and inmates, and begun isolating and monitoring new prisoners for two weeks.

On Thursday, it began handing out cloth masks to prisoners at its Lansing prison, where a dozen inmates have contracted COVID-19.

Spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said the agency is working closely with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, keeping people mostly in their assigned cellblocks and limiting transfers between facilities.

“These strategies, along with educating our staff and residents regarding signs and symptoms and increased sanitization of high-traffic areas,” Witte said in an email, “are just a few of the ways we are working to keep our staff and residents healthy and safe.”

The ACLU lawsuit followed a similar call for prisoner releases from public defenders across the state as anxious prisoners worry about their health.

Tyrone Baker is serving a sentence in the Lansing Correctional Facility, where 12 inmates and 14 workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Worries about the virus, he said in an email, have prisoners on edge.

“They are showing fear, and becoming more argumentative with staff,” Baker wrote in an email, “due to the fear they are going to get sick.”

The prison system announced it will distribute masks to inmates and staff, starting with Lansing this week.

In a memo to prisoners’ families, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Zmuda announced that other prisons and parole offices will get masks after Lansing. The department said it expects every facility to have masks in two or three weeks.

Kansas Correctional Industries, a state agency that contracts with private companies to make products through inmate labor, makes the masks. They’ll be distributed with instructions for laundering.

That announcement came as some jails and prisons across the country have seen a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, driven by close quarters and poor sanitation.

Some facilities, including some Kansas county jails, have begun releasing people to reduce and prevent the spread of the virus. Public defenders in Kansas sent a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly last week asking her to release some people locked up for minor crimes or have health conditions that would make them particularly vulnerable.

People in jails and prisons are especially susceptible to getting sick because they can’t follow social distancing guidelines, said Jennifer Roth, a Topeka public defender who helped write the letter.

“It’s just like a nursing home. It’s just like a cruise ship,” Roth said. “It’s a tight, constrained place that has sometimes questionable ventilation.”

Infirmary and hospital beds

The Lansing prison quarantines sick inmates in its infirmary, Witte said. Other prisons have designated areas to move people who test positive.

“If someone has informed the medical team that they have symptoms, they are being assessed and then, if their symptoms match with KDHE guidelines for testing, they’re being tested,” Witte said in an email. “At that point, they would not be intermingling (with other people).”

The state’s prisons only have 102 infirmary beds across eight adult prisons and one juvenile prison. Most of the prisons are full or beyond capacity.

Most of the prisons are located in rural areas, where there are relatively few hospital beds available. The El Dorado Correctional Facility had a population of 1,933 as of April 8. The city of El Dorado has only 74 acute care beds in its hospital, according to a 2018 survey from the Kansas Hospital Association. There were 981 people held in the Norton Correctional Facility on April 8, and only 25 acute care beds at its local hospital, according to survey data.

The Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary did not respond to a request for comment. In March, the federal Bureau of Prisons announced an employee at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. The bureau’s website details virus precautions, including screening all inmates before moving them, suspending visits from volunteers and lawyers, and isolating and testing inmates with symptoms.

Judges in Finney County, in western Kansas, have released about 20 of the clients in Mark Hartman’s public defender office from jail, due to coronavirus concerns.

Those people, Hartman said, now have easier access to their prescription medication, jobs and housing, which all have a positive impact on health.

Plus, people in jails and prisons can contribute to community spread of the coronavirus, he said.

“If you’re a person held in a jail, you necessarily have to interact with people who are going to go home to their families at the end of the day,” he said. “That would really truly become an incubator for the city.”

Baker, the man serving a sentence in Lansing, said some inmates have symptoms and think they may have the coronavirus, but have not been tested. He has overheard some people yelling from their cells, telling the prison to do more to protect them.

“The prisoners in A-1 was yelling out from their cells, ‘ya'll better do something to keep us safe. I do not want that sh-t!’,” Baker wrote. “They were screaming for about 15 minutes.”

Baker saw two food trays thrown out of cells.

“That is common when prisoners call themselves trying to make a point while locked in their cells,” he said.

Baker, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, said he was given a mask earlier this week and has been using cleaning chemicals to clean his body and clothes.

“This is a scary time in here because we cannot get away from it,” Baker said. “So we have to be some kind of super warrior and fight it head-on.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3