Arkansas fails when it comes to COVID-19 response for inmates

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Arkansas Department of Corrections responds to the ACLU report

An inmate stands by his cell door at the maximum security unit at Tucker Prison near Tucker, Ark., Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

NEW YORK (KNWA/KFTA) — An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report grading all 50 states and how COVID-19 responses were handle in prisons and jails gives Arkansas a failing grade — F+.

The report is titled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons” was released on Friday, June 26.

From the ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative report, “state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective to just callously nonexistent. The data reveals that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response to protect and save lives.”

As of June 22, 2020, more than 570 incarcerated people, more than 50 correctional staff have died and most of the largest coronavirus outbreaks are in correctional facilities.

The ACLU suggests that states need to reduce “the footprint of their criminal legal system for the sake of public health and racial justice.”

Other states with an F+ grade include Alabama, California, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma. No states received an A, B, or C grade, according to the report.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) tells KNWA/FOX24 that some recent report and media stories have painted an inaccurate picture of the national prison and jail response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ” The complexity of treating and managing COVID-19 in a congregate prison setting cannot be understated,” said ADC Communications Director Cindy Murphy. “The Arkansas Department of Corrections has gone to great lengths to safeguard the health and safety of our inmates and staff with compassion and professionalism.”

On April 17, 2020, the Arkansas Department of Health Epidemiology Supervisor toured the Cummins Unit Prison in Grady, Arkansas. A declaration was filed with the U.S. District Court by Kelley Garner that states, “the Department of Corrections is working diligently to ensure the safety of its inmates and staff and has implemented many of the recommendations provided by the Department of Health. I am particularly impressed with the Department of Corrections’ ability to respond to evidence and information as it develops and change its plans mid-stream in response to the new information.”

Also observed:

  • A morning broadcast to inmates informs them of the latest COVID-19 developments
  • Signs are posted throughout the unit informing inmates and staff of best practices
  • Inmates have access to sinks and free access to soap and the facility is routinely and repeatedly sanitized
  • All staff was wearing masks. Most but not all inmates were wearing masks

Garner said, “I was pleased to learn the Cummins Unit had implemented various methods of social distancing, including suspending visitation and congregational religious services. And, the unit, as recommended by the Department of Health, engaged in robust testing, testing a very large number of inmates in a very short amount of time.”

Also noted by Garner was the unit’s practice of separating incoming inmates and inmates who have tested positive for the virus. “[It] is a reasonable approach to combating the spread of the virus within the unit,” she stated.

“We have worked closely with the Arkansas Department of Health, the agency that directs our testing strategy, to take numerous steps to both contain the virus and care for inmates who test positive for COVID-19,” said Murphy.  

For example:

  • Quickly establishing onsite COVID infirmaries at all affected locations.
  • Distributing masks to all staff and inmates, increasing sanitation, and setting up screening locations.
  • The Division of Correction has spent more than $305,000 on COVID-response measures.
  • We continue to adapt and improve how we care for infected inmates as more is learned about the virus.

Updates on COVID response efforts are posted regularly to ADC.arkansas.gov and to the department’s social media accounts, such as Twitter.

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