Families say virus fear high at prisons

Inmates describe rising frustration

This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.
This file photo, shows a sign for the Arkansas Department of Correction's Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark.

When Cecilia Sagers spoke to her husband over the phone at the Cummins Unit on Monday, he described a collision of events that had rattled inmates at the state's largest prison.

The furious storms that knocked out power across the southern half of Arkansas on that Sunday night before had left the 1,800-bed prison farm running on generator power at the same time that the staff members were trying to feed inmates in their quarters, one of the steps taken to manage the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus that had swept through nearly an entire barracks in East Hall.

In the nearby West Hall, where Sagers' husband is housed with 59 other men in an open-style barracks, the change in food service resulted in dinner being served at 2 a.m. Monday. Frustrations were rising, her husband said, and he said he overheard chatter from a guard's radio about inmates knocking out windows in the barracks near where the virus originated.

"He said, 'It's too late,'" Sagers recalled of their conversation. "They didn't do anything until it's too late."

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As the virus continues its spread throughout Arkansas, it has proved especially virulent in the crowded lockups. Incarcerated people now account for roughly 1 in 6 verified cases of the disease in Arkansas.

In a series of conversations with reporters last week, inmates or their family members described frustration with the pace of testing and what they perceived as an apparent lack of concern for inmates with preexisting health problems. They also expressed fears that prison officials were ill-prepared for an outbreak.

Prison officials announced just a week ago that an inmate tested positive at Cummins; a health official said at Saturday's coronavirus briefing that the number of infected at the prison farm had grown to 230. But the number of infected inmates isn't included in the state's total.

In addition to the number at Cummins, the state's health secretary, Dr. Nate Smith, said at Friday's news conference that 57 inmates tested positive at the federal prison in Forrest City, and 62 were infected at a state lockup for parole and probation violators in Little Rock.

The Department of Corrections also reported that 34 employees had tested positive for the virus Friday. Nine staff members have tested positive at the federal prison in Forrest City.

Two inmates at the Cummins Unit were hospitalized as of Friday, the Department of Corrections said.


On top of the coronavirus infections that prison officials are trying to control, five of the state's largest prisons in the Delta -- including the Cummins Unit -- lost power in the April 12 storms and had to run on generators while power was restored over the past week.

Inmates at the Cummins Unit complained in messages to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about cramped and unsanitary conditions in their barracks, to which they are confined for most of the day because of the disease. Pictures from one inmate show a barracks with dozens of cots spaced inches apart and a trash can overflowing with garbage.

Outdoor exercise has not been allowed at the prison since April 11, a spokeswoman confirmed, and only inmates assigned to certain jobs -- such as the laundry, kitchen, livestock and garment factory -- are going to work.

"The halls look like something off of an end-of-the-world movie," one inmate texted the newspaper on Monday. "It's an eerie feeling here among the staff because they know the extent of how many people are affected. The inmates here are getting antsy due to the lack of communication and concern from the administration."

Inmates at Cummins who spoke by text and in phone calls with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did so on the condition that their names not be published, out of fear of being disciplined for using contraband cellphones.

Dina Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, confirmed Friday that the power failure had disrupted some of the prison's operations, including laundry services and the delivery of an Easter dinner, which was served to one barracks at a time. The delays were made worse by the disturbance in which inmates broke windows, she said.

"When the storms knocked out the electricity, it takes a few seconds for the generator to kick on. Inmates will occasionally see the brief period of darkness as a good opportunity to cause damage. This has happened many times over the years," Tyler said in an email. "The barracks where the inmates acted up was not the same barracks where the first positive tests occurred."

Tyler said that further testing last week revealed positive coronavirus cases in 15 of the 19 barracks where testing has been done at the Cummins Unit. Inmates who test positive are being housed in three quarantine barracks.

On Friday, Smith announced that the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System was lending help to the Health Department and the Cummins Unit by processing coronavirus tests from inmates.

Meg Mirivel, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said the VA had done about 300 tests for congregate living settings, such as prisons and nursing homes.

Additionally, Tyler said the prison system's private health care provider, Wellpath, had 99 tests available at the Cummins Unit on Friday.

The state prison system holds about 16,000 inmates.


Inmates and their family members have raised concerns about the availability of soap and other hygiene products inside the units.

According to a recent motion for early release to home confinement filed by Terrance Osborne, an inmate at the minimum-security satellite campus of the Forrest City prison, inmates have no access to alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

"While soap is available, the common bathrooms that every inmate is forced to use are not cleaned any more frequently as a result of the pandemic. Inmates are required to use the computers and phones to communicate with family and friends, but neither is cleaned," Osborne's motion states.

In a statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said sanitation efforts "continue across all institutions" and individual bars of soap are available for purchase at the prison commissary.

Tyler said the state prison agency also prohibits alcohol-based hand sanitizer. She said state inmates are given two pieces of bar soap each week, in addition to liquid hand soap that's provided in the barracks and replenished "as needed."

Sagers said her husband at the Cummins Unit bought anti-bacterial soap from the prison commissary for $1 a bar. Sagers asked that the Democrat-Gazette not name her husband, over concerns that speaking out could affect his consideration for parole.

In an email, Tyler noted that the infection is not caused by bacteria, and that the guidance from the Health Department says that "hand washing with regular soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds is effective."

Inmates at Cummins' garment factory began stitching thousands of masks earlier this month that have been distributed to officers and prisoners throughout the prison system. Inmates who communicated with the Democrat-Gazette said they were being made to wear the masks when they leave their barracks, but could take them off when they were back inside their living quarters.


As the number of infections associated with lockups has increased, so have calls by prison advocates, attorneys and some lawmakers to grant compassionate releases to at-risk prisoners and to free up bed space by paroling nonviolent offenders or those nearing the end of their terms.

States such as Kentucky, Washington and Oklahoma already have announced steps to begin releasing hundreds of inmates during the pandemic.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday, however, that his immediate response would be to ensure that state prisons have enough health facilities and isolation beds to handle an outbreak, rather than releasing inmates.

"We care about them, we want them to make it through this crisis the same as every person in Arkansas that we care about," Hutchinson said. "We continue to look at those things but that's not the first option we go to."

Parole approvals are up about 20% during the pandemic, when compared with a similar period last spring.

"Due to the arrival of Covid-19 in the State, the [Parole] Board has been working diligently with its partners within the Department of Corrections to promptly and safely release eligible offenders," Brooke Cummings, the administrator to the board, said in an email.

Cummings said that applications to the board also are up. Of those, more than 1,700 inmates have been granted parole since March 1. Those granted parole still must complete any outstanding requirements and have an approved parole plan before they can be released.

Pleas for compassionate and health-related releases also have flowed to the federal prison complex in Forrest City.

Speaking by phone from her home in Gerald, Mo., Laura Flannery told of her fears that her 53-year-old husband, James Flannery, will contract the virus while serving the remaining seven months of his one-year sentence at the low-security unit of the Forrest City prison.

Laura Flannery said that her husband has diabetes, high blood pressure and a family history of strokes and heart attacks.

Earlier this month, when Flannery came down with bronchitis, he told his wife that other inmates were "freaking" out and complaining because of his coughing. At the time, he was certain the coronavirus had infected people in an area of the prison just 100 yards from his unit, he explained to his wife in an April 2 email that she provided to the Democrat-Gazette.

"[If] that virus gets in here, i am as good as dead with the lung issues i have," Flannery wrote.

On April 7, James Flannery was tested for coronavirus, his wife said. But then he was placed among sick inmates who were known to have the virus before he learned his test result was negative three days later, on April 10.

Flannery does not have symptoms at the moment. His wife could not say whether his cough -- what he thought was bronchitis -- might have been a symptom of covid-19.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a March 26 memo to prioritize the release of some inmates to home confinement during the pandemic based on their age, vulnerability and crime of conviction. All releases must take place after a 14-day quarantine period to avoid spreading the virus into communities, Barr wrote.

Barr later ordered expedited releases at facilities experiencing coronavirus outbreaks in Louisiana, Ohio and Connecticut. According to the Bureau of Prisons website, 1,198 federal inmates have been placed on home confinement in response to the pandemic.

A spokesman for the prisons bureau, Emery Nelson, was unable to say how many people have been released from Forrest City. "Given the fluid nature of the situation, the number of inmates referred for home confinement is not broken down by institution," Nelson wrote.

Nelson declined to offer information regarding an inmate's "conditions of confinement, or medical condition" when asked about Flannery's case.

Laura Flannery said her husband's court-appointed attorney has not been helpful in attempting to secure Flannery's release, despite the inmate's ongoing health issues and the nonviolent nature of his conviction.

According to federal court records, James Flannery pleaded guilty to three counts of wire fraud, misuse of a Social Security number and theft of government funds in 2019. A grand jury indictment in the Eastern District of Missouri said that he bought and sold wooden pallets while also receiving disability insurance payments.

When Laura Flannery spoke to her husband on Thursday, he told her he has 13 days left in quarantine.

"He's very stressed," Laura Flannery said in an interview Thursday. "Stressed, scared. He realizes now he's not invincible and things can happen to him. He was never worried about the flu before, but this is something that's just gone wild."

SundayMonday on 04/19/2020

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