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Kansas Still Mulling Inmate Releases Despite Prison Outbreak

Kansas Department of Corrections

Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that she’s still considering releasing some Kansas inmates early because of the coronavirus pandemic even though an outbreak of hundreds of cases has one prison under quarantine.

Kelly confirmed last week during an Associated Press interview that the Department of Corrections moved six inmates from state to house arrest before being forced to stop early releases because of an outbreak at the Lansing Correctional Facility outside Kansas City. As of Wednesday, 609 inmates and 88 staff members there were infected.

The burgeoning cases at the Lansing prison — with 85% of the inmates showing no symptoms — helped fuel a 5.1% increase Wednesday in confirmed cases in Kansas. The prison’s home of Leavenworth County saw its confirmed cases rise by 30% from Tuesday, up 181 to 783 total, while the state’s total increased to 5,734, up 276. The actual number of cases is thought to be higher because of limited testing and because people can be infected without feeling ill.

Reported COVID-19-related deaths increased by seven to 144, according to the state’s count. John Hopkins University said 162 had died. Three deaths have occurred at the Lansing prison; eight staff members and six inmates also are infected at seven other facilities, with no deaths.

“The issue of releasing folks from prison is an ongoing one,” Kelly said during a Statehouse briefing. “I expect that it will be sort of a rolling measure, now that we’ve got the system in place to verify who’s eligible for that.”

Kelly has faced criticism from advocates and inmates’ families and a state-court lawsuit for not acting sooner to release inmates. A state law allows the Department of Corrections to move inmates who’ve committed less serious crimes into house.

Some 80% of Lansing’s 1,700 or so inmates had been tested as of Wednesday, and Norman said the entire staff should be tested by next week.

The Lansing outbreak continues to fuel daily increases in Kansas cases after Kelly let a statewide stay-at-home order expire at midnight Sunday.

One key issue in reopening the economy has been local officials’ ability to trace the contacts of infected people, and the state health department has brought on about 200 people to help them. It plans to increase the number to 400, said Dr. Lee Norman, the department’s top administrator, and most will be volunteers.

But Norman added, “I think we’ll get a little bit stretched thin when people start going back to work as the economy and as businesses open back up again.”

Kelly and Norman acknowledged that some workers might fear going back to work. In other states, refusing to go back is seen legally as voluntarily quitting, so that the workers who are then fired aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. Kelly said Kansas will “case by case basis” rather than having a blanket policy.

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

Because of the pandemic, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature started its annual spring break March 20, more than two weeks early. Legislative leaders decided Wednesday that lawmakers will reconvene May 21 for a single day of work.

Amid the outbreak, Taiwan is donating 100,000 surgical masks to Kansas to help medical and meatpacking workers, according to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran. Four counties with meatpacking plants — Seward, Ford, Finney and Lyon — have a combined 2,309 confirmed cases, 40% of the state’s total.

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