Final 277 Arkansas inmates held in Texas lockup returned

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

The Arkansas Department of Corrections transferred the last of its prisoners held at a privately run lockup in Texas back to the state on Friday, ending a yearslong contract with the facility over coronavirus-related concerns, a spokeswoman said.

The 277 state prisoners held at the Bowie County Correctional Center -- just over the state line in Texarkana, Texas -- have been transferred to the Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern, where they are undergoing quarantine, according to prisons spokeswoman Cindy Murphy.

At least 25 of the prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus while at Bowie County, Murphy said.

Another 50 have tested positive since returning to the state, Murphy added, and the Department of Correction is awaiting the results of another 117 tests.

A letter sent from Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne on Oct. 30 to officials in Bowie County informed them that Arkansas planned to terminate its contract to hold prisoners in the county after state officials developed their own plan to test every prisoner for the virus.

Testing at the Arkansas department has uncovered 7,820 cases of the virus among prisoners, according to the Marshall Project. At least 48 prisoners have died after contracting the virus.

"It has come to my attention that the Bowie County Correctional Facility does not have similar guidelines in place for its offender population," Payne wrote. "We believe these guidelines are important to the continued health and safety of our inmate population."

Murphy said the Board of Corrections voted to terminate the state's contract with Bowie County during a meeting on Oct. 28.

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Benny Magness, the chairman of the corrections board, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Bowie County Judge Bobby Howell said Tuesday that the decision "wasn't totally unexpected" after inmates at the jail began testing positive for the virus this summer.

A prisoner from Arkansas who was being held at the jail died in October while being treated for covid-19, according to a news release from the Department of Correction.

The release did not name the man, who was in his mid-60s and serving a sentence for rape.

"My understanding was they had a little bit of their own protocol that they wanted to follow," Howell said, adding later "we felt that we were very fortunate to go as long as we did" without a case.

Arkansas began contracting with Bowie County to hold inmates in 2015 as a way to relieve some of the pressure from the state's overcrowded prison system.

The Bowie County Correctional Center where the prisoners are held is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a private company based in Louisiana. LaSalle has weathered criticism of its management of the facility and the nearby Bi-State facility, but in January its contracts to run both facilities were extended by three years, the Texarkana Gazette reported.

"The Texas standards differed from Arkansas and we respect the decision for Arkansas to terminate the contract based on a difference between us following the Texas rules and regulations given the location of the facility in Texas," LaSalle's executive director, Rodney Cooper, said in a Tuesday statement through a spokesman.

Prison officials in Arkansas had already announced plans to phase out their use of the lockup in Bowie County and instead send the prisoners housed there to a planned regional jail in southeast Arkansas. That facility would also be operated by LaSalle, which reached an agreement with Drew and Bradley counties last year to build the 600-bed lockup.

In the meantime, however, hundreds of coronavirus-related releases and a pause on the transfer of inmates from county jails this summer have caused the state prison population to plunge below its official capacity for the first time in over a decade.

On Tuesday, state prisons held 14,192 prisoners, about 92% of the system's listed capacity, according to a count sheet provided by Murphy.