On May 15, Rep. French and I held a conference call with Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Zmuda, Warden Shannon Meyer and corrections staff for a briefing on current operations at the Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF) and to address constituents’ COVID-19 concerns.

We requested the call after several constituents voiced concerns and requested clarification on several issues. The key concerns were the health of both the corrections officers and the entire staff, short staffing of corrections officers, the transfer of COVID-19 positive inmates to the facility from other locations and early release of inmates that may cause risk to the public.

During the call the leadership shared their sincere condolences for the loss of the corrections employees. They assured us that the health and safety of the LCF staff were of utmost importance and that significant measures had been taken since the onset of COVID-19 to mitigate risk to employees and inmates. Since the onset, inmates have been moved to the newly built units that have the best ventilation system of any corrections facility to treat recirculated air. In addition, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has placed a viral control specialist on location at the facility to advise on mitigation strategies.

The department has also tested all inmates since the onset and put in place mitigation strategies to prevent additional cross infections. Since April, staff was advised of the symptoms of infection and given guidance to self-report and be tested if symptoms were identified. Those who tested positive were directed to self-quarantine for 10 to 14 days before returning to work. Under that guidance, 174 employees were tested and 93 were positive. Of those, 58 have completed quarantine and returned to work. As of this week, the department secured the number of tests required to test all LCF employees with testing having started last Thursday and due to be completed this week. As the results of these additional tests are completed, the leadership at the facility will take the actions required to quarantine those staff members identified as positive and take appropriate additional mitigation strategies.

With regard to the short staffing, the move to the new facility was specifically designed to allow for a higher level of supervision with a reduced staff. Although this did not resolve the entire staffing shortage it has improved the level of supervision from the prior unit. Although staffing has been, and will continue to be, an ongoing concern, if staff levels remain at their current levels the facility will be able to meet their staffing needs. If the employee testing through this week results in additional cases, staff may have to be brought in from other locations, on a temporary basis, to fill the staffing requirements.

The secretary shared that LCF has a greater capacity than other facilities within the state for medical support and that two physicians and two nurses from the Kansas National Guard have supplemented the existing medical resources. It is for that reason that inmates from other facilities have been and will continue to be transferred to LCF for medical treatment and isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. These transfers were a challenging decision but given all of the available housing units in the state, LCF is simply the best suited to isolate inmates and provide medical support. By isolating cases at LCF rather than at less medically capable facilities, the state will be able to stabilize the spread of the virus across the state’s entire inmate population.

The last concern was that dangerous inmates were being released early and that those inmates may put the public at risk. The secretary and staff shared that this issue was considered and implemented at a very minimal level. When considering this option, the secretary and staff decided to consider inmates that were otherwise scheduled to be released within the next six weeks. The list was then cross referenced for those serving a sentence for murder and rape and those inmates were removed. The list was then cross referenced for those with a viable release plan and immediate accommodations to be able to serve under house arrest. The result was that the department was able to identify 15 inmates, six females and nine males, who qualified and have taken advantage of the opportunity. Most of these will meet their normal scheduled release date within the next 30 days. There are also currently 13 juveniles that are out on house arrest having gone through a similar risk mitigation process.

I want to thank Secretary Zmuda, his staff and Warden Meyer for providing us updates on these specific constituent concerns. I remain confident in the ability of these two leaders to lead LCF through this incredible challenge. We look forward to continuing to assist the secretary and warden to keep our local citizens informed and all Kansas citizens safe.

Sen. Kevin Braun represents the 5th District.