Spacing in state's prisons sought by inmates; judge petitioned for quick action

This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.
This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker heard arguments Tuesday from attorneys who are seeking to force the Arkansas Department of Correction to begin spacing inmates six feet apart and provide them with more effective hygiene products to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The attorneys represent inmates at three state prisons -- including the Cummins Unit, the location of the largest outbreak in the state -- who sued the state agency last week in federal court, seeking improved hygienic conditions and the release of thousands of inmates held in overcrowded prisons.

Since then, the number of infections at the Cummins Unit have continued to rise, reaching 860 cases Tuesday.

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Citing the rapid spread of infections at the Cummins Unit, attorneys for the inmates this week asked Baker to issue an immediate injunction addressing some of their concerns, including a request to provide inmates with alcohol-based disinfectants (which are banned in prison) and to begin social distancing "to the maximum extent possible" within open barracks.

"If preventative measures are not taken immediately, hundreds of additional incarcerated people and staff in ADC facilities throughout Arkansas will likely contract the virus," stated the petition, which was written by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Arkansas and firms in New York and New Haven, Conn., are also representing the 11 male inmates involved in the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, Baker held a hearing on that request. After more than an hour of arguments, Baker said she would take the matter under advisement. She did not issue a ruling later in the day.

At the hearing, conducted via teleconference, lawyers in Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office argued that state prisons are already taking reasonable steps to protect inmates -- such as supplying them with masks and liquid soap -- and that additional requests being made by the inmates are untenable in a prison setting.

"These prisons were not constructed to house people six feet apart, they were constructed on an open-barracks model," said Assistant Solicitor General Asher Steinberg.

Most of the state's more than 16,000 inmates are housed in open barracks rather than one- or two-person cells, according to prison officials. Those barracks typically house dozens of inmates who sleep on cots and share bathrooms and showers.

Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman with the Department of Correction, said inmates are provided with two bars of soap a week in addition to liquid hand soap. Bathrooms and common areas are cleaned "as often as needed" by inmate porters who also restock the soap dispensers, Tyler said.

The inmates' request for an injunction lists more than a dozen additional actions sought from prison officials, from providing paper towels, sponges, brushes and disinfectants to posting signs with hygiene instructions and guarantees against retaliation for those who report poor conditions.

An NAACP attorney, Jin Hee Lee, argued at the hearing Tuesday that such steps were necessary to prevent an outbreak at another state prison, rebutting arguments from the state's attorneys and health officials that the virus is contained at Cummins.

"This is not a time to be relaxed and to rest on the arrogance that the height of the problem is over," Lee said.

The inmates' attorneys also asked for increased testing of coronavirus-symptomatic inmates at all state prisons to detect any possible outbreak early on.

As of Tuesday, the Department of Correction and health officials had tested 48 inmates outside of Cummins and a parole and probation facility in Little Rock that is the site of a smaller outbreak, according to Tyler.

Both sides in the inmates' federal lawsuit are due for a hearing in Baker's court again May 7. Baker did not say whether she would make a decision on the request for a temporary injunction before then.

The 11 inmates who are plaintiffs in the suit are housed at the Cummins, Varner and Ouachita River prisons.

Metro on 04/29/2020