Active covid-19 prison cases fall

Number at state’s hard-hit Cummins Unit plunges to 11

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.

The number of active covid-19 cases at the Cummins Unit -- at one point the source of the largest outbreak in Arkansas -- has plunged below a dozen after weeks of quarantine measures, prison and health officials said this week.

Nearly half of the inmates at the 1,900-bed prison farm in Lincoln County tested positive for the virus since it was first detected there in early April.

According to the state Department of Health, 10 Cummins inmates died after contracting the virus. Thursday evening, the Department of Corrections issued a news release that said another inmate being treated for covid-19 died that day at Jefferson Regional Medical Center.

Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, said Wednesday that only 11 inmates with the virus were still considered active cases, per Health Department protocols that label cases "recovered" after a 14-day waiting period.

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"Most of the inmates at the Cummins Unit that tested positive are considered recovered at this point," Murphy said in an email Wednesday. "We are still monitoring inmates closely. We are still screening anyone who enters the facility as well as our inmate population."

Another prison that was the site of an outbreak, the Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff, has seen all but two of its 227 covid-positive inmates recover as of Wednesday. One person at the prison died of the virus.

Critics of the prison system's handling of the coronavirus pandemic said that by not conducting follow-up tests to determine when sick inmates have recovered, officials run the risk of falsely categorizing those who could still be infectious.

"I think we can't assume that there are fewer active cases until they are conducting adequate testing," said Holly Dickson, the interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

The ACLU, working with the NAACP and Disability Rights Arkansas on behalf of 11 state inmates who filed a lawsuit against the prison system, sought to force officials to conduct widespread testing at other state prisons where the virus has not been detected. However, a federal judge denied their request last month.

Officials at first struggled to contain the virus at both prisons, where many inmates are housed together in open military-style barracks with 40-50 other men. On at least one occasion, health officials declared that they had completed testing on inmates in barracks that they believed were potentially exposed, only to later announce additional testing once the virus appeared in areas thought to be unaffected.

Eventually, every inmate at both prisons received a test, according to prison officials.

In addition to inmates who have recovered, 55 of the 65 staff members at the Cummins Unit who contracted the virus are now listed as recovered, according to the Health Department.

At the Randall L. Williams Unit, 15 staff members tested positive, though the Health Department records do not say how many have recovered.

Inmates who tested positive were moved to housing separate from those who tested negative. Inmates who tested positive, even if they are considered recovered, remain separated from those who tested negative as of this week, Murphy said.

Visitation at all state prisons has also been suspended until at least July 1, and Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne will monitor the pandemic to determine when inmates will again be allowed to hold in-person visits with friends and family.

Some operations at the Cummins Unit that were disrupted due to the threat of the virus have begun to return to normal, Murphy said. For example, prisoners resumed eating at the dining hall this week after having food brought to their barracks for weeks to prevent the spread, and yard call is again being conducted on a daily basis.

Other programs at the prison, such as GED classes and substance abuse treatment, remain suspended, however, and the Randall L. Williams Unit is still on lockdown.

Dickson, the ACLU director, said the ongoing suspension of programs was also problematic due to the requirement that all prisoners must complete any outstanding program requirements before they can be released on parole. She said the Department of Corrections should either suspend the requirement or adjust the programs so that they can be conducted safely during the pandemic.

"People are sitting who would otherwise be approved for release, because they cannot complete programs," Dickson said.

Hundreds of inmates have already received early releases after Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked parole officials to speed up parole eligibility for more than 1,200 inmates who committed nonviolent, nonsexual offenses.

On Wednesday, more than 100 lawsuits filed by Cummins Unit inmates against their jailers were rolled into one federal class-action lawsuit by U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Deere. The lawsuit, which alleges both inadequate testing and improper medical treatment of covid-positive inmates, was filed by Verona Swanigan, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is reviewing the lawsuit and discussing it with the agencies involved, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Metro on 06/05/2020

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