The Federal Bureau of Prisons has declined to say how many inmates have been released from the federal correctional institution in Forrest City where at least 135 inmates and 13 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Following directives from U.S. Attorney General William Barr expediting the release of inmates to home confinement, the Bureau of Prisons began releasing inmates in federal custody from prisons where the virus has spread widely. However, federal authorities have disclosed only how many inmates have been released across all Bureau of Prisons facilities nationwide, not from specific prisons.
To date, an additional 1,959 inmates across the country have been released because of the pandemic, an increase of nearly 69%, according to the Bureau of Prisons website.
Barr issued a March 26 memo instructing the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize the release of certain vulnerable inmates to home confinement because of the pandemic. One week later, Barr ordered expedited releases at facilities in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio that were experiencing large covid-19 outbreaks, as well as "others similarly affected."
All released inmates were to follow a mandatory 14-day quarantine, Barr wrote. Inmates can be transferred to home confinement even if electronic monitoring is not available, he said.
In response to repeated questions about the number of inmates released from Forrest City, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman would say only that the bureau is not disclosing specific figures because the situation is subject to change.
"Given the fluid nature of the situation, we are only providing the total number of inmates transferred to Home Confinement across the BOP," a spokesman with the Bureau of Prisons Office of Public Affairs wrote in an emailed statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A bureau spokesman declined to answer when asked if federal authorities could provide a range or estimate of transfers to home confinement from the Forrest City prison.
As of Friday afternoon, 135 inmates and 13 staff members had tested positive for the virus at the Forrest City prison, according to a spreadsheet tracking cases in congregate settings provided by the Arkansas Department of Health. (The Bureau of Prisons website listed smaller numbers: 38 inmates in the prison's low-security unit were listed as having tested positive for the virus, along with one staff member in low-security and two staff members in medium security.)
Nationally, more than 1,500 federal inmates and 340 Bureau of Prisons staff members had tested positive as of this week, according to the bureau's website.
Felix Walls, a 78-year-old inmate serving a life sentence in the Forrest City prison for a drug conviction two decades ago, was released late last month, Little Rock television station KTHV-TV reported, after a judge granted his request for compassionate release.
According to the Bureau of Prisons statement provided in response to questions, inmates do not need to apply in order to be released to home confinement.
"While all inmates are being reviewed for suitability, any inmate who believes he/she is eligible may request to be referred to home confinement and provide a release plan to their Case Manager," the statement said. "The BOP may contact family members to gather needed information when making decisions concerning home confinement placement."
On Thursday, Forrest City Mayor Cedric Williams said he did not know how many inmates have been released from the federal prison.
"We don't have any specific information on inmate transfers. I must refer you to The Bureau of Prisons for that information," Williams wrote in an email.
Positive covid-19 cases in Arkansas prisons have risen dramatically in recent weeks. At the Cummins Unit, a state prison 30 miles southeast of Pine Bluff, 860 inmates and 51 staffers had tested positive as of Friday afternoon.
Amid the rapid increase in the number of positive test results at the Cummins Unit, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Board of Corrections have taken tentative steps to allow some inmates in state custody to leave.
On April 24, the board voted to certify for parole eligibility a list of more than 1,200 inmates after the governor suspended a requirement that inmates serve at least six months of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. The Arkansas Parole Board still must approve individual inmates for release.
Hutchinson has repeatedly expressed hesitation regarding the compassionate release of inmates.
"We have to remember that these inmates are there for a reason," he said during an April 19 briefing. "And there are public health concerns, but there's also public safety concerns."
A Forrest City inmate in the low-security unit, 53-year-old James Flannery, tested negative for the coronavirus last month, according to his wife, Laura. In spite of several health risk factors and a recent bout with bronchitis, it's unclear if he will be released early amid the outbreak.
Flannery's one-year sentence is scheduled to be completed in November. He was convicted last year of defrauding the government by drawing disability benefits while simultaneously working selling wooden pallets.
Recently, he told his wife that he had been turned down for early release, but Laura Flannery did not know if that meant he was rejected under the attorney general's orders or a separate category of compassionate release.
Flannery hopes to return home, where he won't be exposed to the virus and can keep up with his own medical care, his wife said in a phone interview Thursday from her home in Gerald, Mo.
"He fits the criteria age-wise and with the preexisting illnesses, and all the rest of it," Laura Flannery said. "So we're hoping he can come home. That would be a best-case scenario for us."
Metro on 05/03/2020
Print Headline: Some prisoners get early release; details on numbers murky