Federal judge declines to alter Arkansas prisons' approach to virus

A federal judge on Tuesday declined to intervene in the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic by forcing prison officials to provide greater access to hand-sanitizer and other hygiene supplies, spacing for inmates and releases for those who are most at risk of falling seriously ill.

Inmates at three state prisons, aided by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and Disability Rights Arkansas, sued the prison system last month over what they alleged was a mismanaged response to the virus that put prisoners’ health at risk and violated their constitutional rights.

More than 1,000 state inmates have tested positive for the virus, and eight have died.

In response to the lawsuit, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office argued that prison officials were already taking steps similar to those sought by the prisoners, such as speeding up releases for some prisoners and providing others with non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

In a ruling handed down Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Kristine Baker acknowledged those efforts along with the threat of irreparable harm to the inmates, and determined that facts did not support a preliminary injunction at this point in the case.

“These factors dictate that the Court should approach intrusion into the core activities of the state’s prison system with caution,” Baker wrote.

Baker similarly declined to issue an emergency injunction for some of the inmates’ requests earlier this month.

Rutledge's office responded to Baker's decision Tuesday by saying that it would allow officials "to continue focusing on protecting all Arkansans from the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Holly Dickson, the interim president of the ACLU of Arkansas, said that the organization would continue its legal fight to seek better conditions for inmates.

“We knew this would be a difficult fight, but this fight is not over,” Dickson said. “Arkansas state officials’ continued refusal to follow CDC guidelines is resulting in rampant outbreaks that threaten the lives of everyone who lives and works in these facilities, as well as their surrounding communities.

This story was originally published at 12:49 p.m.