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Arkansas prisons take covid measures; $2M air-purification system among board-approved items

by Stephen Simpson | August 25, 2021 at 7:12 a.m.
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2009, file photo, an officer patrols a cell block at the Cummins Unit near Varner.

The Arkansas Board of Corrections approved several measures Tuesday afternoon, including installing an air purification system in prison facilities, extending its mask mandate and releasing potential parolees because of overcrowding.

Solomon Graves, secretary of the Department of Corrections, received unanimous approval at the Board of Corrections meeting to utilize inmate welfare funds to purchase an air-purification system throughout the prison system. He said the project will cost more than $2 million.

"This air-purification technology uses charged air particles to purify the air and reduce the presence of airborne particles, odors and certain virus pathogens and bacteria," Graves said. "This type of technology has been implemented in most new hospital constructions and has been used in other congregate housing settings across the state during the pandemic."

Graves said the air-filtration system was tested at the Ouachita River Unit during the spring and the department was happy with the results.

"It comes with a computer interface that allows the maintenance staff to log in and see measured air purification levels," he said. "Prevalent bacteria, pathogens, viruses, air-purification issues ... for instance, if the air quality is reduced due to a small electrical fire, this system can pick up the deterioration of the air quality as a result of the electrical fire and generate a report if the air quality drops below a certain level due to any cause."

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

The system will be installed by Curtis Stout Co., an electrical equipment and energy solutions business in Little Rock.

Rick Cooper, assistant director at the Division of Correction, said the reason this specific system was attractive because of the measuring and monitoring tool.

"You can set the parameters that you want to be notified in the event you have a reduction in air quality," he said. "We get reports every day when we get spikes or drops so it allows us to identify and research why there was a drop in quality."

Graves said 100% of the project is eligible to be reimbursed by unobligated covid-19 relief funding, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The Rev. William "Dubs" Byers, a member of the board, asked Graves and Cooper to make sure once the system is installed to have someone actually monitor when air-quality drops.

"It needs to be firmly set up who is notified, how they are notified and what they do when they are notified," he said.

Graves said the system will be monitored.

COVID-19 AND MASKS

The prison system has 60 inmates who have tested positive for the virus, with the majority of them new to the system.

Graves said that as of last Friday, only 13 active cases were not from a recently arrived inmate.

"We are continuing to see a limited community spread in our facilities due to our mitigation efforts," he said.

Seventy-one staff members are out after testing positive.

Graves said monoclonal antibodies are still being used to treat inmates to ease the burden on the state's hospital system during the pandemic.

Monoclonal antibodies are manmade proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system and can specifically target a certain antigen, according to the American Cancer Society.

"The inmate does have to agree to receive the treatment," Graves said. "We have had a fair amount who have declined to accept the treatment, but we do have 30 doses available on site."

Graves said the treatment takes about two hours and the outcome has been positive.

He said 9,248 inmates and residents have been vaccinated in the Department of Corrections. He said this includes 58 work-release inmates who received the vaccination through their employers.

"Based on our June average daily population ... that is a 59.8% vaccination rate as of yesterday evening," he said.

Since the beginning of the year, 2,863 department employees have received shots.

"As our staff vaccine numbers are self-reported, we do not mandate that staff provide their vaccination status since that is not permitted under state law, but we do encourage them to do so," Graves said.

Graves also recommended the Board of Corrections extended the mask mandate within the prison system until the end of September.

"I am looking closely at the staff numbers and I do expect to allow at our administrative locations some flexibility where vaccination rates are at a recommended level," he said.

A couple of board members seemed hesitant to continue with the current trend of extending the mask mandate.

"When are we going to get to the end of this?" one unidentified board member asked during the phone conference. "We can go on and on with this. A majority of units don't have any cases. I for one am about ready to say we need to draw this thing to end."

Graves said he agreed completely, but the agency still needed to practice caution.

"I think we are fast approaching that point," he said. "Not only do most of our locations not have any cases, but they have the vaccination rate about the 70% threshold. But I want to reiterate to the board our positive outcomes are a direct result of our mitigation efforts. It's not our intention to maintain this forever, but unfortunately the board well remembers our outcome a year ago was leading the country in the wrong direction and I think we are one of the leaders in positivity rate."

The board decided to compromise and extended the mask mandate until Sept. 15, when members will meet again to discuss the issue.

PRISON RELEASE

The Department of Corrections will release potential parolees during a 90-day period because of prisons nearing capacity.

The board unanimously approved use of the state Emergency Powers Act and certified a list of 300 male inmates as being eligible for immediate release if approved by the Parole Board.

Dexter Payne, director of the Division of Correction, said the release was needed to reduce the prison population after it reaches 98% capacity for 30 consecutive days.

"The rate of capacity for the male population in the Arkansas Department of Corrections is 13,722, today's male population is 13,589 and we have exhausted all actions within state laws, rules and regulations to reduce the population," he said. "We are at 99% capacity and we have exceeded the 98% capacity for the past 30 days. ..."

"Our female population did not quite reach the 98% capacity," he said.

Payne said that in the first 30 days, 99 prisoners will be eligible to be released and releases will continue at that same pace until the third set of 30 days is reached, when 102 prisoners will be eligible to be released.

"It will be 300 on the nose," he said.

Print Headline: Arkansas prisons take covid measures

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