Inmates in Kansas and Washington have sparked violent protests over coronavirus fears

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  • In response to the spread of the new coronavirus, prisoners in Kansas and Washington staged disruptive protests earlier this week.
  • At the Lansing Correctional Facility, in Kansas, there was “lots of property damage,” according to Randy Bowman, head of public affairs for the Kansas Department of Corrections.
  • Inmates there have not been given face masks, according to an incarcerated person who spoke with local media.
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Sheets of paper fluttered down into an alleyway at the Lansing Correctional Facility, in Kansas, on Thursday, as inmates tossed documents from a second-story window, angry about the threat of the new coronavirus in the prison. 

The disruption began Thursday afternoon and was quelled by early Friday morning, Randy Bowman, head of public affairs for the Kansas Department of Corrections, told NBC News. He estimated that up to 50 inmates in cell block “C”, a medium-security unit, had staged the disruption.

He described the scene as “lots of property damage”.

“They’ve broken everything that could be broken, except the bars because you can’t break the bars,” an unnamed inmate in the unit told a local NBC affiliate on Thursday. “Windows, microwaves — they’ve trashed the officer’s station where they do their work. The computers are broken. The cameras have been taken down, just like mayhem. … Somebody just broke a window now.”

Some are worried about the inmates’ safety as coronavirus cases increase in the facility. Prisoners have been prevented from showering and do not have face masks, the unnamed inmate said. 

“They’re all stacked on top of one another,” said Patricia Rudder, whose brother is incarcerated at the Lansing institution.

“They are not animals. They’re humans, and they have certain rights and their rights are kind of being taken away,” she said, adding that inmates have been kept in the dark about the number of coronavirus cases in the prison.

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“There’s a lot of inmates in there that don’t have TVs,” Rudder said. “They don’t have money on their books to be able to call home, so they’re going off of hearsay and third-party.”

By Thursday, 12 prisoners and 14 correctional officers had contracted the coronavirus, Bowman said. Sick inmates are in an infirmary while officers are self-isolating at home.

On Tuesday, Melody Brannon, the Kansas Federal Public Defender, warned that the coronavirus will spread quickly in the state’s detention facilities. “COVID-19 has devastated overcrowded jails that were unprepared for this pandemic,” Brannon wrote, citing Rikers Island, where more than 700 inmates and officers are sick. 

“That is wrong,” she said. “No one is safer from this pandemic if the jail gates stay locked.”

The ACLU of Kansas filed a class-action petition on behalf of some Kansas inmates, including at Lansing, on Thursday, seeking their release.

Six sick inmates spark a protest in Washington

In Washington’s Monroe Correctional Center, the gates have stayed locked – and inmates staged similar protests over the coronavirus on Wednesday. Six inmates are sick with COVID-19, according to the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). 

“It’s bad over here again,” an inmate told the Seattle Times. “People are starting to run outdoors, throw food and all.”

Several hundred inmates staged disruptions, threatening to set fires or take officers hostage. One inmate said officers were firing “grenades that shoot pellets to control what the hell is going on,” referring to “sting balls,” or explosive munitions with rubber pellets.

In a statement to the Seattle Times, the DOC confirmed that officers used pepper spray and sting balls against some inmates. “The individuals then stopped the destruction of the two housing units and came into compliance,” it said. No injuries were reported, according to the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, which was briefed on the incident.

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