Civil Rights lawyers filed an emergency complaint and request for temporary restraining order against Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) officials on behalf of Arkansas state prisoners. The April 21 complaint was filed over alleged inadequate measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, illness and death in state correctional facilities.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF), the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, Disability Rights Arkansas, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and attorney Laura Fernandez filed the complaint, according to a news release.
It was reported April 20 that Cummins Unit, a state prison, had 600 confirmed COVID-19 infections — nine days after the first prisoner tested positive there.
Hutchinson on Sunday said he’s asked the state parole board to review 1,990 non-violent, non-sex offender inmates statewide who are due for release within six months for possible early release, according to the Associated Press.
The news release from the Civil Rights lawyers suggests more should be done.
“Incarcerated individuals currently make up approximately one-third of all confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide,” according to the release. “Prisoners, including the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, are disproportionately Black and have significantly higher rates of serious medical conditions, like heart disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes that make them especially vulnerable to severe illness or death from the virus.”
The complaint alleges that state officials have worsened these risks by failing to take essential measures to ensure social distancing, safe and sanitary conditions, and ready access to hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment.
“The startling viral outbreak in the Arkansas prison system places thousands of incarcerated people at risk of serious illness or death, but this crisis extends far beyond prison walls,” said Jin Hee Lee, senior deputy director of Litigation at LDF. “It is only a matter of time when the virus will spread from prisons to the surrounding communities, depleting scarce healthcare resources.”
“The devastating harms of this pandemic already disproportionately fall on Black Arkansans, who are infected with and die from COVID-19 at double their percentage of the state population. This racial disparity will deepen from viral outbreaks in prisons, which are mostly located in Southeastern Arkansas where there are higher concentrations of Black residents,” Lee said.
Tom Masseau is executive director at Disability Rights Arkansas.
“Our organization is charged with investigating and preventing abuse or neglect wherever we find it,” Masseau said.
“Nowhere has the response to this unprecedented event been more lacking than in the prison system. While Arkansas has benefited greatly from utilizing social distancing measures, frequent hygiene, and the use of personal protective equipment, the population of incarcerated individuals have not had this luxury. Many inmates within the Arkansas prison system have disabilities or chronic conditions that place them at a greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19. We are calling upon the Governor and Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of individuals in their care. They cannot simply ignore the healthcare risks of inmates who have disabilities or have a chronic illness within the correctional system,” Masseau said.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an especially severe public health risk in correctional facilities, which incarcerate Black individuals at five times the rate of white individuals nationwide, according to the release.
“Without stronger action by state officials, Arkansas’ overcrowded prisons are becoming a humanitarian and public health catastrophe,” said Holly Dickson, legal director and interim executive director at the ACLU of Arkansas. “This is an imminent threat to public health that disproportionately endangers the lives of Black Arkansans, who are four times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. It is critical that state officials heed the advice of public health experts and immediately reduce the state prison population to a level where social distancing is possible.”
Arkansas officials are failing to adhere to established guidelines issued in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically for correctional facilities to protect against COVID-19 spread and illness.
The full complaint is available at https://www.acluarkansas.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/frazier_v_kelley_complaint.pdf.