I regularly receive messages from valued readers wanting to pass along column ideas and offer comments. Occasionally they arrive from prisoners within the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
One handwritten message arrived the other day containing information and concerns about conditions at Cummins Prison. His appeal for help on behalf of inmates and staff alike struck me as worthy of sharing with Arkansans who care about humane issues.
While I can't vouch for the accuracy of everything this inmate contends, I do know if I still had the time and resources to pursue investigative projects and reporting, I'd put this issue high on my list.
As things stand, I can lob the following information into our governor's court. He's the one who does have the wherewithal (and I hope humanitarian interest) to seek answers and remedies if this information proves warranted.
While this inmate provided his name and inmate ID number, I chose not to use either out of concern for his welfare, even though he specifically hoped I was willing to provide a voice for his concerns.
Below, in lightly edited part, is what the man wrote and signed on Aug. 1, 2021.
"I am reaching out to you, Mr. Masterson, on account that someone outside these wall really needs to know how bad it has gotten here when it comes to the lack of staff that Cummins Prison is barely operating on.
"This has caused chaos in the living conditions and, most important, the safety of everyone inside the fence here. Cummins has lost two-thirds of its security. I can't emphasize enough how dangerous it is here right now. Seems like all the inmates have gone to keeping ... a knife because of the fact that this prison could riot any day now.
"There are very limited security checks now. In a 24-hour period, a correctional officer will maybe make two rounds; that is on an average. It has come to the point that the rank of captain can be seen passing the food trays.
"I wonder sometimes if I will actually survive Cummins, and I'm only here for not paying the balance owed on a closed child support case that had been closed since 2013. I owed $30,000 and was given 20 years for it. Now I can't pay on child support cases that is [sic] opened because I was put in prison for owing an old debt. ...
"There are lot of days there is no yard call, no personal hygiene handed out, no haircuts, no checking to see if any of us are alive or need medical treatment. Like I said, so many correctional officers [COs] are not here anymore. It is amazing and an act of God that nothing has happened yet. There are so many prisoners here that are begging for the covid-19 vaccination shot and can't receive it for some unknown reason. No staff COs are signing grievances inmates are writing.
"There is a lot of tension among inmates and one day soon I predict something is going to happen. I hear so much from other prisoners [about] possibly bonding together to change how much the conditions here need to change for the better.
"I have been asking for a towel to dry off with from the property room because the towel I have is severally [sic] worn with a huge hole in the center and is threadbare. I have had this same towel for two years. I wrote a request starting back in March, then wrote another in May; wrote a grievance in June and was told [by the warden] there hasn't been any towels [or] bed linen. Cummins Prison is out of stock. My bedsheets are falling apart, there are no T-shirts to buy [in the] commissary, no shoes to purchase anymore.
"Last but not least , but can go on and on with ... 100 other things, my cellmate has cancer. ... He hasn't eaten lunch or supper in I don't know how long. I lost count ... at breakfast he eats a few bites of gravy, a few bites of grits.
"Maybe a few minutes after he eats, his body will not hold it down ... he has lost 50 pounds in about 45 days. He passed out after standing for a few minutes and when a CO finally came by I told him to call medical. No one came. I am literally watching him die in this cell. So sad.
"I am writing this because something needs to change. The right person needs to hear this. The way I see it, not only are we at risk with our safety and health, but the community that surrounds Cummins is at jeopardy as well.
"Cummins Prison does not have the sufficient amount of staff to properly operate the daily tasks needed to function correctly. This has gotten out of hand. I am terrified for me, other inmates and, yes, the staff. With this being said, would you help with my voice to be heard? I thank you for your time and am grateful for any help with this.
"Take care and God bless."
Thanks. I wish the same for you if all you have said is true.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.