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Left in dark, say Arkansas inmates' families

Prisons not forthcoming with news on lockups’ covid-19 cases, they assert by John Moritz, Ginny Monk | June 14, 2020 at 7:44 a.m.
This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

The last time Martha Binion spoke to her brother, Jim Wilson, in early May, he said he was feeling a little tired because of long work hours in the Cummins Unit prison kitchen.

The next time Binion got a call from the unit, it was her brother's cellmate saying Wilson had been hospitalized for a week. A few hours later, the Arkansas Department of Corrections phoned to say her brother had been in intensive care in Little Rock for two days with covid-19 and had no further information.

She didn't learn how critical the situation was until talking later with the hospital staff, who said her brother's kidneys were shutting down and he could hardly breathe. One hospital staffer asked whether they should resuscitate.

Wilson, 60, died of covid-19 May 26.

Binion, a Mississippi resident, is one of at least three families of Cummins prisoners who echo the same concerns: They were completely or partially in the dark about their loved ones' conditions until circumstances were dire, which left them blindsided when their loved ones died. The state says its policy is to notify prisoners' emergency contacts when prisoners are hospitalized.

"I said 'why did y'all not call me when he first went to the hospital?' I don't understand," she said.

Ten Cummins inmates have died of the illness caused by coronavirus. The 1,900-bed prison unit has had 963 inmates test positive for the virus. Just over 950 have recovered, according to data posted Friday afternoon.

Sixty-five total Cummins employees have contracted the virus, and some who had tested positive were asked to return to work because of strained staffing levels, officials have said.

Cindy Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, said inmates' families can call the department's medical administrator's office to get some health updates if the inmate has authorized them to receive that information.

Otherwise, she said, automatic notifications are made when inmates' conditions become so severe that the prisoners must be hospitalized.

"When an inmate is taken to the hospital, the chaplain's office immediately makes every effort to contact the primary or alternate contact listed by the inmate to report the transfer," Murphy said in an email. "Unfortunately, the contact information we have is often outdated."

Murphy also said inmates may share information about their health during routine contacts with their friends and relatives.

In-person visits at all state prisons have been halted since March as a precaution against the virus. To compensate, prison officials have reduced the fees that inmates must pay to speak with relatives or friends over the phone or by video.

Inmates schedule video visits through an outside vendor and can make calls multiple times a day, Murphy said.

For CeCe Tate, Cummins inmate Derick Coley's girlfriend, even concessions made by the prison to encourage phone calls weren't enough once Coley tested positive for covid-19 in April.

Tate, who is from Louisiana, said Coley had a contraband cellphone that he used to keep in daily contact with her and the couple's 8-year-old daughter, though he stopped responding to that phone or the regular line at the prison after he fell ill.

Coley, 29, died at the Cummins Unit shortly before midnight May 2.

"He was too sick to make a call," Tate said in an interview last week.

Tate and Coley's younger sister, Tytiuna Harris, said they reached out to the prison for updates on his health, with varying success.

Harris, who was not listed as one of Coley's emergency contacts, said her attempts were rebuffed by the prison staff. Tate, however, said she was able April 15 to contact someone at the prison's infirmary who told her that Coley had tested positive and was being treated.

"All they told me was he had a fever. They gave him some Tylenol to reduce the fever and the pain," Tate said.

Tate said she called the prison every day for the next week but was told only that he was feeling better, so eventually she stopped calling. The next time she heard from the prison, she said, was at 1:37 a.m. May 3, when she was told that Coley had died.

Murphy declined to answer questions about conversations between the prison system and specific inmates or their families.

Montey Davis, whose brother Morris Davis had been in Cummins for several years, said he didn't know his older brother had contracted covid-19 until a hospital representative called to ask if they could "unplug" him from his ventilator.

The doctor "just wanted me to unhook him, and I just didn't even know he was even ill, and I'd talked to him like a week before," Montey Davis said. "It's just a mystery to me how all that happened, and why they didn't call me as soon as he was checked in."

The last time the brothers spoke on the phone, Montey Davis said Morris Davis didn't report any symptoms.

Morris Davis, 70, died of covid-19 May 8.

Wilson was serving a life sentence for rape, a conviction his sister says the family was appealing.

Binion said her brother was an excellent cook -- he loved to bake pies, especially apple. The two spoke often, and she visited him at Cummins when she could.

"He always had me and my sisters spoiled," she said of Wilson. "He always spent time with us."

Wilson had preexisting health conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure, that left him vulnerable to covid-19. He needed a new kidney, and Binion had recently seen a doctor to learn whether she was a match to donate.

She also said it took the hospital several hours to call her after Wilson died. He died just after 8 p.m., according to a death report. Binion said a doctor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences called to inform her of the death at nearly midnight.

Coley was pronounced dead at the Cummins Unit infirmary, where he was rushed after a "medical incident" that occurred while he was being moved from his barracks on May 2, according to a coroner's report.

According to the report, Coley was being moved after a separate incident in which inmates in his quarantined barracks set fire to a trash can and broke glass. At the request of his family and Bonnie Robertson, an attorney for Tate, an autopsy was performed on Coley's body, the results of which are pending.

Coley was serving a 20-year sentence for a terroristic act in relation to a shooting. He is the youngest state inmate to die after testing positive for covid-19, though the Lincoln County coroner's report listed no previous medical conditions.

Montey Davis said he wasn't able to collect his brother's body because he lives in Arizona and couldn't get to Arkansas in time to make arrangements. The prison cremated Morris Davis, who died at the Jefferson Regional Medical Center.

"They said 'you can pick it up right now.' And I'm over in Arizona. What was I going to do?" Montey Davis said.

According to court and newspaper records, Morris Davis was serving a 10-year term for manslaughter in the 2010 killing of his wife.

Montey Davis said his brother loved nearly anything to do with the outdoors, especially gardening and fishing.

He said he's waiting for a time when his brother's children can be together to hold a memorial service.


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