Virus rate in prisons seen as U.S.' worst

After news group’s report,state officials defend efforts

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

LITTLE ROCK -- Outbreaks of the coronavirus at more than a half-dozen state prisons have left Arkansas with the ignominious distinction of having the highest rate of infected prisoners of any state in the country, according to a nonprofit news outlet tracking the virus's spread throughout the country's prisons.

A total of 3,938 Arkansas Department of Corrections inmates have tested positive for the virus, according to the state Department of Health -- more than one out of every four people housed in state prisons at the start of the pandemic. At least 29 have died.

According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice issues, the rate is higher than any other state in the country. Two of Arkansas' neighbors, Texas and Tennessee, have also seen exceptionally high rates of infection in their prison systems.

In addition to inmates, 169 state prison staff members and health care workers have tested positive for the virus. An employee of a community correction center died from the disease.

Responding to the Marshall Project report and calls from advocates to do more to protect prisons, state officials including Gov. Asa Hutchinson have defended the Arkansas Department of Corrections' handling of the virus, saying robust testing of prisoners has led to the identification of more cases.

"I think part of the reason for that is we have a much more comprehensive response when we have one positive test in the prison system," Hutchinson said last week. "We will be testing maybe 1,000 inmates because they are in the same general pod or facility as one positive case."

Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne recently attributed the state's ranking in prison infections to the volume of testing.

"I think that's a key factor in why the numbers are the way they are," he said.

Data published by the Marshall Project, however, suggests Arkansas is somewhere in the middle of testing for states experiencing high rates of prison infections.

Arkansas tested 9,319 prisoners for covid-19, a spokeswoman said Friday, which is more than 60% of the 15,466 incarcerated at the start of the pandemic.

Some states, including Texas and Michigan, announced plans earlier in the pandemic to do widespread testing across their prison systems. Both states have carried out more tests than the number of prisoners they hold, according to the Marshall Project.

Ohio, on the other hand, has carried out 4,133 tests per 10,000 prisoners, less than Arkansas' rate of 6,025 per 10,000. Idaho has carried out 2,520 tests per 10,000 prisoners.

Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said staff members were developing a plan to roll out "mass testing" as soon as this week. She said the plan would involve testing prisoners at units where the virus has yet to be detected, adding that additional details were still being worked out.


The data published by the Marshall Project is collected as part of a collaboration with journalists working for The Associated Press, said Tom Meagher, the Marshall Project's managing editor for digital and data journalism.

Numbers for each state don't reflect people who are incarcerated in local jails or in federal prisons, the latter of which is tracked separately. (The Federal Prison Complex in Forrest City has reported 784 cases of the virus among inmates and staff members, and no deaths.)

"Once a week, we go to all 50 state prison systems to get a snapshot in time," Meagher said.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections has taken a number of steps in an attempt to keep the coronavirus from spreading into prisons, including shutting off visitation, distributing masks to prisoners and guards, and checking prisoners for symptoms at mealtimes.

The first outbreak began in April at the Cummins Unit, where it has since grown to more than 1,000 cases.

Prior to that outbreak, then-Corrections Secretary Wendy Kelley warned of the threat the virus posed to the state's overcrowded prisons, saying, "Once it gets in, it will be disastrous."

(Kelley announced she would retire at the end of July. Her successor, Solomon Graves, was to take over in August.)

Despite Kelley's prediction, the virus has not spread unabated in every prison where it has penetrated.

For example, the first five infections were reported at the Grimes Unit in Newport on June 12, but since then only one additional prisoner has tested positive, according to the Health Department.

The Ouachita River Unit in Malvern, meanwhile, reported its first cases near the end of June, and the outbreak there has since grown to infect 1,259 prisoners and 48 staff members, making it one of the largest outbreaks in the country.

Asked why some units appeared to have greater success containing the virus than others, Payne noted that Grimes has a younger average population and more cells than other state prisons. In the latter case, units are largely made up of open-style barracks where there is little ability to keep prisoners distanced from each other.

"Now we do have open barracks there, but we have a lot more cells at Grimes than we do at the majority of our facilities," Payne said, before adding the caveat, "Ouachita has a lot of cells, too."


The Department of Corrections has come under fire from some advocates and relatives of prisoners who allege that the agency has failed to implement necessary safeguards such as social distancing and proper access to sanitizers.

A lawsuit filed by several prisoners with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights groups has sought to force the state into taking additional measures to combat the virus, though a federal judge in May declined to issue an injunction.

In a statement released last week, ACLU Arkansas interim Director Holly Dickson said the statistics published by the Marshall Project "are another alarming reminder of Arkansas state officials' shameful failure to address the deadly public health crisis raging through our prisons."

In conversations with reporters, both prisoners and their family members have also questioned whether the Department of Corrections has been able to effectively quarantine prisoners with the virus.

Furonda Brasfield, an attorney and anti-death penalty activist, said one of her clients, a prisoner at the Ouachita River Unit in his early 30s, was recently tested for the virus, but before his results had returned, he was moved into an area with other prisoners who had tested negative. She said she didn't know Friday whether the man -- whom she declined to name publicly -- had tested negative.

"He does not understand the logic in how they are being moved around," Brasfield said.

In a statement Friday, Murphy said all prisoners at the Ouachita River Unit have received their test results, and she defended the department's process for separating those who test positive from other prisoners.

"Our process for moving inmates during the pandemic is a deliberate and careful process," Murphy said. "Inmate moves are informed and directed by Arkansas Department of Health guidance with consideration for ensuring inmates are placed with cohorts based on their COVID status."


The latest unit to experience an outbreak, the Delta Regional Unit at Dermott, had more than 150 prisoners test positive in its first round of mass testing last week.

As those tests results came in Wednesday, officials at times had difficulty tracking the exact size of the outbreak. In his afternoon news briefing, Hutchinson pegged the size of the outbreak at 145 cases, though several hours later a spokeswoman said the Department of Corrections was only aware of 90 cases.

Murphy, the spokeswoman, said the lag in reporting was due to the way that coronavirus tests are processed after being taken by Wellpath, the department's health care provider. Samples from those tests are processed by the Health Department, she said, and the results returned to Wellpath and then shared with prison staffs. Murphy said the officials were working on a system to allow Department of Corrections officials to view live results.

"I think there's been a very close partnership with [the Department of Corrections]; if we need to tighten that up, we can," Hutchinson said Thursday.

In April, after the initial outbreak at the Cummins Unit, the governor requested expedited parole consideration for more than 1,000 prisoners serving time for nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, in order to free up prison space during the pandemic.

As a result of that request, 811 prisoners have received early release, according to Murphy.

In addition to speeding up releases, the Department of Corrections has also stopped taking new transfers of male inmates from county jails after the outbreak at the Ouachita River Unit, the department's main intake facility. As a result, populations at the department have plunged below capacity for the first time in years. There were 14,844 people held in state prisons on Friday.