114 inmates set to be considered for early parole

Panel cites outbreak concerns

The Arkansas Board of Corrections voted to expedite parole consideration for 114 state inmates on Wednesday, over concerns that an outbreak of the coronavirus would be especially harmful to crowded prisons.

The board unanimously invoked the one-year provision of the Emergency Powers Act, which allows the Department of Corrections to send the Parole Board a list of qualified inmates who are within a year of eligibility for supervised release. The Parole Board can then begin considering those cases immediately.

The Emergency Powers Act, which has both 90-day and one-year eligibility provisions, has been used on a regular basis for more than two decades to release inmates as state prisons struggle with overcrowding. The Board of Corrections last invoked the one-year provision of the law in January, for 75 inmates, and Chairman Benny Magness said the board took the unusual step of using the longer provision again in a short time span because of concerns about the coronavirus.

Inmates with violent criminal records or with disciplinary issues in prison were excluded from the list of 114 made eligible for early parole, Magness said.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The list had 35 women and 79 men.

The state prison system housed more than 16,000 offenders as of Wednesday. In addition, 1,222 state inmates were being held in county jails, waiting for space to open in prisons.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said that a parole officer and administrative assistant in Cleburne County had tested positive for the virus.

The Community Correction office in Cleburne County closed March 16 after the administrative assistant tested positive, and the rest of the workers there were being quarantined at home for at least two weeks, said Dina Tyler, the spokeswoman. The office was reopened Wednesday after being disinfected and staffed with some workers from the Community Correction office in White County, Tyler said.

Cleburne County, with a population of about 25,000, has been the center of one of the largest outbreaks in the state, with 40 residents testing positive for the virus as of Wednesday. Many of those cases appear connected to a church event held in early March.

Tyler said that neither worker is hospitalized but that "both are sick."

The officer who was infected had not recently entered a state prison or county jail, Tyler said. The officer last had in-person contact with offenders on March 13.

Throughout the state, the Division of Community Corrections has canceled most in-person visits involving parolees, probationers and their supervision officers, Tyler said. However, officers are still meeting in-person with some high-risk offenders and are conducting required home visits with sex offenders.

The Department of Corrections had not tested any of its inmates for the coronavirus as of Wednesday. The prison system shut down visitation services last week, and it's holding prisoners transferred from county jails in quarantine for two weeks in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus.

Politics on 03/26/2020