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Spurred by pandemic, Kansas ACLU launches clemency project

May 14, 2020 GMT
FILE - This Feb. 2, 2017, file photo, shows the exterior of the Lansing Correctional Center in Lansing, Kan. A coronavirus outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people at the largest prison in Kansas has claimed the life of a staff member, the state Corrections Department said Tuesday May 12, 2020. Department spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said the Lansing Correctional Facility employee died Monday, but she provided no additional information. (Mark Rountree/Leavenworth Times via AP, File)
FILE - This Feb. 2, 2017, file photo, shows the exterior of the Lansing Correctional Center in Lansing, Kan. A coronavirus outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people at the largest prison in Kansas has claimed the life of a staff member, the state Corrections Department said Tuesday May 12, 2020. Department spokeswoman Rebecca Witte said the Lansing Correctional Facility employee died Monday, but she provided no additional information. (Mark Rountree/Leavenworth Times via AP, File)

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — A civil rights group on Thursday launched “The Clemency Project” to try to secure the release of Kansas prisoners whose medical conditions make them vulnerable to the coronavirus, following a stinging defeat in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed the first round of what it anticipates will be dozens of individualized clemency petitions seeking relief for their clients from the state parole board and Gov. Laura Kelly.

The move comes days after Leavenworth District Judge David King threw out the group’s class action petition on behalf of seven inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility, the Ellsworth Correctional Facility and the Topeka Correctional Facility and others.

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The court found that the ACLU didn’t prove corrections officials failed to meet their constitutional duty to provide adequate medical care or that they acted with deliberate indifference to the inmates’ serious medical needs.

The failure at court pushed the group to take up a strategy to sidestep the courts, and The Clemency Project was born.

Even before the pandemic, the organization had been considering the clemency process to relieve the overcrowding in Kansas prisons, ACLU legal director Lauren Bonds.

“The recent decision in our case, I think, gave us a push to try to think about doing it sooner rather than later, but this is something we had been considering for a while, just given the gross overpopulation of the prisons,” she said.

The pandemic has been particularly brutal at the Lansing facility, the state’s largest prison, where two staff members and three inmates have died. COVID-19 has infected 88 staff members and at least 750 of the approximately 1,710 men imprisoned there. The vast majority of the infected inmates, 85%, have no symptoms.

“That overpopulation has really created the perfect storm for these prisons to be hotbeds for coronavirus infections, and we are seeing that in particular in Lansing,” Bonds said.

The state’s Prisoner Review Board learned of the ACLU’s clemency project Thursday when it received four applications. The board will review the applications in accordance with Kansas law, said Rebecca Witte, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Individual clemency petitions will be filed on a rolling basis beginning with the inmates who were part of that lawsuit as well as more than 50 others who have since contacted the ACLU. And Bonds expects that number to grow.

“We are really optimistic that this is a way we can continue to work with the administration to reduce the number of folks who are incarcerated, and in particular make sure that we are giving relief to those particularly vulnerable to the virus who have no reason to be in prison right now,” Bonds said.

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