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There’s a crisis in our prison system. We recently learned tests of the residents in a single unit at Lansing Correctional Facility showed 75% of the 240 men tested were positive, though most show no symptoms. The facility is now in a 14-day quarantine.
Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Kelly and her team have worked hard to share information, increase the state’s testing capacity, secure personal protective equipment, outline a plan to restart the economy, improve the antiquated unemployment system and a host of other things that have benefited Kansans during this time.
But for those living and working in our penal institutions, a comprehensive plan to identify solutions to decrease the spread of COVID-19 within our prisons has been too long in coming.
We know this is a highly contagious disease. It’s the reason social distancing has been paramount in efforts to keep it from spreading. Yet social distancing in a cramped prison environment is nearly impossible. That’s why plans to mitigate the spread of the virus must include efforts to reduce the number of incarcerated inmates.
On April 22, Kelly told reporters during a news conference a plan for a limited release of incarcerated individuals was forthcoming “in the next few days.” On Wednesday, she reiterated consideration was being given to transitioning some inmates to house arrest but the numbers are few.
The Kansas Department of Corrections moved six inmates to house arrest then stopped early releases because of the widespread outbreaks at LCF, a facility that’s had three deaths.
“The issue of releasing folks from prison is an ongoing one," Kelly said. "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.”
Every day the state delays action, exposed staff and inmates continue to increase. Presently there are confirmed cases at seven KDOC facilities: LCF, Wichita Work Release Facility, Topeka Correctional Facility, Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex, El Dorado Correctional Facility, Ellsworth Correctional Facility and Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
The secretary of corrections has the ability to release inmates to house arrest for the duration of their sentence if they meet a very strict criteria outlined in Kansas statute 21-6609. Anyone meeting these criteria should be given the opportunity to continue to serve their sentence at home, reducing the prison population and making the environment safer for the men and women employed in our facilities.
For years, we’ve seen the numbers of men and women incarcerated continue to increase, putting strain on our prison facilities even in healthy times. Lawmakers have been reluctant to change sentencing guidelines to reduce the prison population.
Now, in a time where housing thousands of folks together in a dormitory setting is spreading illness among staff and inmates, it’s time to get serious about reforming who we send to prison and how long we keep them there.