‘Time is of the essence’: Sick and vulnerable inmates make case for clemency

American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas petitioning for the early release of 63 prisoners

Deana Estrada is concerned her husband, Ronnie Loggins, can't receive necessary cancer treatment without endangering his life unless he is granted clemency. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Last summer, Deana Estrada received an upsetting phone call from her husband, an inmate at a Kansas correctional facility.

Ronnie Loggins, Estrada’s husband, had found a large growth developing near his groin. After several tests, he was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare cancer of connective tissues.

Loggins, currently incarcerated at Lansing Correctional Facility, has battled cancer before, Estrada said, but not in current conditions with a pandemic turning prisons into virus hotbeds.

“We have a two-year-old son who Ronnie has not been with since the day he was born,” Estrada said. “I want my son to have a dad. My biggest fear is he will never get to know Ronnie.”

Loggins is one of 63 inmates petitioning for early release as part of The Clemency Project, an American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas action meant to assist model prisoners and those with underlying health issues.

Her husband is incarcerated for drug-related offenses, Estrada said. She said he failed a drug test while on probation for selling his pain medication to pay for cancer treatment.

Loggins was transferred to the Lansing facility in March, right before the pandemic hit, to be closer to his treatment at the University of Kansas hospital.

Since he arrived, the Lansing facility has struggled to contain the virus. The facility has faced staffing shortages and, in May, was the state’s largest single source of COVID-19 cases. The Kansas Department of Corrections reports 876 inmates and 99 staff members have tested positive at the prison. Two staff members and four inmates there have died from the virus.

Loggins has been met with several roadblocks to his treatment, including being denied entry to the hospital after an employee responsible for transferring Loggins had been exposed to COVID-19, Estrada said.

His earliest release date is still three years away, but Estrada said her husband cannot survive in prison under current conditions.

“He had surgery to have the growth removed, but there are some cancer cells that lingered and chemotherapy is needed,” Estrada said. “Doctors said they don’t know if he is in a good situation to go through chemo, because of how it will affect his immune system with the virus around.”

She said Loggins is in a lose-lose situation. Either he receives treatment and risks a weakened immune system and COVID-19 infection, or he declines treatment and his cancer may spread.

“People are dying left and right from this virus, especially when they have underlying conditions,” Estrada said. “I want him to survive his incarceration.”

In May, the ACLU of Kansas filed the first round of 63 clemency petitions for prisoners whose medical conditions make them vulnerable to the virus, including Loggins.

The organization launched The Clemency Project days after a Leavenworth judge threw out the ACLU’s lawsuit aimed at depopulating prisons, many of which were becoming hot spots for COVID-19 cases.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has reported 17 clusters at correctional facilities across the state since the pandemic began, with more than 2,700 cases and 7 deaths in those clusters.

ACLU worked to sidestep courts by filing clemency petitions to the Kansas Prisoner Review Board. A Kansas statute dictates the board has 120 days to review the petitions and send their recommendation along to Gov. Laura Kelly, who has the final say on the matter.

“We are focused not only on depopulating prisons but identifying folks who have demonstrated they are good candidates for release,” Bonds said. “We are looking at their records while incarcerated, disciplinary records, what programs they have completed and just generally seeing if there are signs of rehabilitation.”

She said the review board had submitted at least five of the initial cases to the governor for review, although the remaining first-round applications might not be reviewed until Oct. 14. That is the date set by the board as the deadline for the initial petitions filed by the ACLU, said Randy Bowman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

“All applications require notice to crime victims and 30 days for their response before the application being presented by PRB staff to the board,” said Bowman “That requirement, and a few incomplete applications that PRB staff helped the applicants to finalize, resulted in Oct. 14, 2020, being the end of the 120 days for the earliest of the ACLU applicants.”

Other applicants have only recently started their victim notification period, and the subsequent 120-day period will expire Feb. 14, 2021, at which point all applications will be on the governor’s desk, Bowman said.

Lauren Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for governor, said Kelly would respect the statutory limits on her authority to grant clemency, and the governor’s top priority amid the pandemic remains the health of all Kansans, including inmates.

“That’s why this upcoming legislative session she will continue her administration’s efforts to make commonsense criminal justice reforms that save taxpayer dollars and make our justice system more equitable,” Fitzgerald said.

Bonds said inmates like Loggins, however, do not have the luxury of waiting until the upcoming legislative session.

“Time is really of the essence here,” Bonds said. “Every delay that we have, every month that passes, we’re subjecting people to unnecessary infection and possibly very serious health complications.”

The ACLU of Kansas is in the process of vetting and additional 40 to 45 people who have reached out for clemency assistance, Bonds said.