A CLOSER LOOK: COVID-19 behind bars; an inmate’s letter

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"The only way to send a letter is if you can find somebody who can do you the favor"

ADC Inmates at the Cummins Unit wait to be admitted through a gate in the prison near Varner, Ark., Monday, Aug. 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — One Arkansas state prison’s COVID-19 cases were so high that inmates were being transferred to different barracks and wings of the prison, at least daily, according to several families of inmates. “They move people almost every day. Sometimes they move the same person more than once in a same day,” wrote an inmate. “…move you to any barrack … not necessarily from room to room.”

The Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas, has a high number of COVID-19 cases. As of May 3, the state reported 869 positive cases there. As of May 19, 917 inmates have recovered, and 329 are still sick in the state prison system, according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC). The Russell L. Williams prison in Pine Bluff has 231 infected inmates, and the federal prison in Forrest City has 622 cases, according to Health Secretary Director Dr. Nate Smith.

At least nine Cummins Unit inmates have died, most from COVID-19, one is still pending an autopsy report. The inmate was Derick Coley, 29.

One Cummins Unit inmate feels the virus is much worse than what is reported to them and to the public.

“Nobody knows who got it, and who don’t,” the inmate wrote in late April.

The inmate writes that “no [one] understands how dangerous that can be,” referring to having inmates change cells, barracks or halls.

FEEDING INMATES AT APPROPRIATE TIMES

In addition to moving inmates to different barracks, the food schedules have changed — for the worse. The ADC Director, Dexter Payne, explained that the delay in getting food to inmates is because the staff is delivering food trays to each barracks.

Inmates are getting fed three times a day, but the timing is a bit off. “Imagine eating cold corn beef hash with beans and milk at 3 a.m.,” wrote the inmate referring to dinner.

In a pre-pandemic prison life, most inmates have access to a commissary where snacks and other food items usually may be purchased.

The ADC Commissary usually offers more than 100 food items for inmates to purchase.

Currently the commissary is empty, according to the inmate. “We are surviving however we can.”

The situation over food shortages and odd serving hours came to a boiling point on the night of Saturday, May 2. A “disturbance” was reported at the Cummins Unit. “They lit a trash can on fire and broke two windows,” according to ADC’s Spokesman Solomon Graves. No injuries were reported.

But, the inmate shared a different “disturbance” scenario. “The riot was in 12 barracks,” he wrote.

In this photo taken Monday, Aug. 10, 2009, an Arkansas Department of Correction officer patrols a cell block at the agency’s Cummins Unit in Grady, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

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