Views from Kansas: Review situation in prisons, jails

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Cellphone footage of what one inmate correctly labeled the “mayhem” at Lansing Correctional Facility last week shows prisoners trashing the place while cursing their sitting-duck vulnerability to the global coronavirus pandemic.

“They aren’t giving us no health care for this coronavirus,” a prisoner says in a video that was posted on YouTube. “Y’all don’t want to give us no health care? This is what we do.”

“There were comments about that posted online, taken with contraband cellphones,” Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Randall Bowman said in an interview, though the official cause of the disturbance is still under investigation.

We do know that the free-for-all broke out in the cell block adjacent to a new building, just completed, where COVID-19 patients are being treated. After it ended, that’s where those who had been living in the now uninhabitable Cell Block C, which was built in the 1860s, had to move.

As of Friday, 12 inmates and 16 employees in Lansing had tested positive for the virus, and seven more inmates were under observation.

The footage of Thursday’s melee is definitely going to get the inmates who were laughing and destroying property in a lot of trouble. But inmates and staff, too, in prisons around the country and beyond are in a lot of trouble anyway, as social distancing is nearly impossible in overcrowded jails. No matter what you’re in for, you may have just been given a death sentence.

“They’re as anxious as anybody else” is about the virus, Bowman said, but “because of the crimes they’ve inflicted on the rest of us, they can’t be with their families. Their anxiety is high.”

Higher than ours, probably, since unlike the rest of us, they can’t self-quarantine. The situation is so dire that some facilities, in California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio, have released some prisoners already. Jails in Jackson County and Sedgwick County (and Douglas) have, too.

This pandemic has both deepened our problems and made all of them — the many Americans who are still uninsured, for example, and the lack of sick leave that discourages workers from staying home when they’re not well — all the more obvious. It’s also reminded us that while a lot has been said in support of prison reform, very little has been done.

The American Civil Liberties Union is taking at least 10 states to court, trying to get them to release those inmates who are medically vulnerable, are in for low-level crimes or whose sentences are almost up anyway, and who have somewhere to go. The ACLU of Kansas on Thursday asked the state’s Supreme Court to immediately release prisoners who fall into one or more of those categories.

This is not a problem with a simple solution. One inmate already released in the St. Louis area had reportedly been in custody on child molestation charges. Because most domestic violence charges are relegated to city court in Kansas City, those found guilty of “only” a misdemeanor can still be violent. There’s also the problem of where inmates will go if they are released.

On Friday, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said the state is weighing what to do. “Inmates and staff are concerned about the level of care inmates have been receiving from the corrections medical provider, Corizon. I understand the frustrations. In fact, I share them.”

So do we, and Kansas officials are right to be looking at both how to improve care and who they might release.

In Missouri, where public defenders have pushed for similar consideration, Gov. Mike Parson has so far seemed disinterested in the implications of inaction. “People are incarcerated for a reason,” he said. They are, but under these extraordinary circumstances, justice demands a review of the specifics.

— Originally published in the Kansas City Star

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