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Coronavirus outbreak prompts Kansas to stop prison releases

May 1, 2020 GMT
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces the state plan to reopen during a speech broadcast from Topeka, Kan., Thursday, April 30, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces the state plan to reopen during a speech broadcast from Topeka, Kan., Thursday, April 30, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas began releasing inmates this week as a way to check the spread of coronavirus in its prison system, but stopped when an outbreak mushroomed and created a danger of returning infected offenders to their communities, Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday.

Kelly said during an Associated Press interview that the Department of Corrections released only six inmates and put them under house arrest for the rest of their sentences. But confirmed coronavirus cases at the Lansing Correctional Facility outside Kansas City have skyrocketed among inmates and staff, and the prison is under quarantine.

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“We got the testing results at Lansing and realized that we had some other work to do before we could let anybody else go,” Kelly said. The Department of Corrections said none of the six released were from Lansing.

Problems at the prison didn’t prevent Kelly from promising to lift a statewide stay-at-home order as planned at midnight Sunday or outlining a plan to gradually reopen the state’s coronavirus-battered economy by June 15, starting with restaurants and many other businesses Monday. However, her economic plan frustrated some business owners, who won’t be allowed to reopen until at least May 18 while others can.

The state saw a 5% jump in confirmed coronavirus cases Friday, an increase of 221, to 4,449. It recorded a single new COVID-19-related death to make the state’s tally 130 since early March.

Kelly and Dr. Lee Norman, the state’s top public health administrator, said Friday that Kansas expects to receive some 60,000 testing kits from the federal government in May, a key factor in her decision to reopen the state.

The slowdown in economic activity is hitting the state budget. A new fiscal forecast issued less than two weeks ago projects Kansas will see its tax revenues drop 7.8% in the current budget year that began in July 2019. Tax collections in April suggested the new projections are on the mark: The state collected $578 million in taxes for the month, roughly what the new, more pessimistic fiscal forecast projected.

Dr. Drew Miller, a family physician in Lakin in southwest Kansas, said he still will advise people to stay home as much as possible. He said became comfortable with Kelly’s reopening plan as he reviewed it.

“It’s more conservative than what I thought it would be,” Miller said.

Kelly loosened restrictions on religious gatherings that prompted a lawsuit by two churches and their pastors. A legal group representing them, Alliance Defending Freedom, announced plans to drop the lawsuit Friday.

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But the disparate treatment of different businesses inspired criticism from some business owners. While restaurants can reopen Monday with social distancing and other restrictions, bars, gyms, fitness centers, hair salons and barbershops, among others, have to wait another two weeks at least.

Nathan Hunt, a retired Army platoon sergeant and combat veteran, said he can open his martial arts academy in Junction City safely. He said he can limit class sizes, clean his business thoroughly and put marks on his mats to keep students apart.

“I know how to corral the kittens,” Hunt said. “I don’t need another mom to tell me how to run my business safely.”

The outbreak at the Lansing prison is problematic for the state because 164 inmates living in a single dormitory-style housing unit tested positive without showing any symptoms. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said 253 inmates at Lansing have tested positive and two have died. Eighty-six employees — about 21% of the staff — have tested positive as well.

The state plans to test roughly 2,000 Lansing inmates and staff this weekend, Norman said.

There also are infections among either staff or inmates in four other correctional facilities, although they are much smaller, the agency said.

Kelly has faced pressure from inmates’ families and an American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas state-court lawsuit to release some inmates.

The ACLU accused the department in a statement of “delay in addressing the very real threat posed by COVID-19 to the incarcerated, to corrections staff, and to the community.”

Kelly said other inmates “on the list” for being released early and put under house arrest “really are victims of the pandemic.”

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kan.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna