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Arkansas prison system below capacity for first time since ’07

Several big lockups still overcrowded, officials say by John Moritz | July 3, 2020 at 8:08 a.m.
This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

Arkansas' state prison system had more beds than prisoners on Thursday, ending a yearslong streak of overcrowding, thanks to hundreds of releases because of the coronavirus.

According to a daily count sheet by the Department of Corrections, there were 15,313 people housed in state facilities and at a lockup in Bowie County, Texas, on Thursday, exactly 33 fewer than the entire system was designed to hold.

Still, several of the state's largest prisons remain overcapacity, and hundreds of additional state prisoners are being housed in county jails due to limited prison space.

Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the prison system, said the last time the statewide prison population was below capacity was on Feb. 8, 2007.

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More than 2,400 state prisoners have been infected with the coronavirus, according to the Health Department. At least 13 have died.

In April, the Arkansas Board of Corrections voted to make more than 1,200 inmates immediately eligible for parole after a directive by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Of those, 730 have been released as of this week, Murphy said.

"The primary benefit of reducing our numbers is that it allows us to separate inmates when we have an outbreak into various groups: positives, negatives, etc," Murphy said in an email. "In general, lowering the prison population reduces the Department's expenses."

Several prisons that have been under lockdown measures because of large outbreaks of covid-19 are among those that continue to house more inmates than they were built for, including the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County and the East Arkansas Regional Unit near Brickeys in Lee County.

The most crowded prison in the state, the Delta Regional Unit in Dermott, housed 587 males on Wednesday, more than 124% of its listed capacity.

No inmates at that unit have tested positive for the virus.

Overall, facilities housing males were at 100.6% capacity on Thursday, while women's facilities were running at 90.8% capacity.

Requirements that some prisoners be housed at a specific security level or with access to certain treatment programs can sometimes prevent the Department of Corrections from transferring prisoners to units with more space, Murphy said.

In addition, precautions taken to limit the spread of covid-19, including reducing the number of inmate transfers between prisons and requiring inmates to be screened prior to release, have slowed the department's ability to manage populations at individual units.

Some inmates and their families have spoken out against the Department of Corrections' response to the virus, charging that officials have done too little to protect the health of prisoners. In a lawsuit aided by several civil rights organizations, 11 state inmates alleged that there was no way for them to maintain social distancing in the crowded barracks where dozens of prisoners sleep on cots only a few feet apart.

Holly Dickson, the interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas -- one of the groups involved in the lawsuit -- said prisons need to reduce their capacities even further to protect prisoners from the virus.

"Standard capacity levels are meaningless amidst a pandemic, where congregate facilities like prisons are at severe risk of viral outbreaks, as we have seen," Dickson said in a text message Wednesday.

"The pandemic demands a substantial reduction of population, particularly with the staffing shortages compounding the pandemic."

For years, prison officials, lawmakers and governors have attempted a variety of measures to respond to overcrowding, from ending programs that had low participation rates, to holding more prisoners in the county jails awaiting space in prison and even opening three new prisons.

Even with more space, prisons still remained crowded.

According to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette archives, the prison board has invoked the Emergency Powers Act -- used to speed up releases when prisons are at or near capacity -- every 90 days since 1998.

Faced with an exploding prison population, the General Assembly in 2017 passed a law aimed at diverting more parole and probation violators to temporary lockups rather than to prison. Since the law was passed, the number of state prisoners had plateaued, until it began to fall in March.

After the virus first began to spread at the Cummins Unit and the governor issued his directive to release inmates who are nonviolent and not sexual offenders, the Board of Corrections again turned to the Emergency Powers Act to speed up releases.

As the number of people in prisons has fallen, so has the number of state prisoners held in county jails awaiting transfer. According to Thursday's count sheet, there were 829 prisoners on the county jail backup, about a 33% decrease from the average in January.


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