Arkansas' prisons, jails take steps to protect inmates' health

FILE — The Arkansas Department of Corrections Maximum Security Unit at Tucker is shown in this file photo.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this caption listed an incorrect prison)
FILE — The Arkansas Department of Corrections Maximum Security Unit at Tucker is shown in this file photo. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this caption listed an incorrect prison)

Fears that the spread of the coronavirus into Arkansas' prisons and jails could wreak havoc on a system already strained by overcrowding has prompted officials to take action in some jurisdictions to free bed space and limit in-person contacts with the outside world.

In Washington County, for example, jail officials on Thursday said they would release 71 inmates who are most susceptible to the virus and keep them on electronic monitoring.

The Pulaski County jail in Little Rock has released 26 offenders since March 13 -- none of whom faced violent felony charges -- with the permission of local judges, a spokesman said.

Similarly, the Craighead County sheriff's office said Friday that it has released about 15 offenders held on misdemeanor charges, freeing up a 20-bed barracks in the event that some inmates need to be quarantined.

All three facilities -- along with the jail in Jefferson County, the county where the virus was first detected in the state on March 11 -- have shut off family visitation with inmates, moving such services to phone and video.

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Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods said he's also directed his jailers to stop taking most nonviolent offenders into the county jail.

"It doesn't make good sense to have offenders, who have been potentially exposed to covid-19, who are low-level offenders, come into our facility and potentially spread the virus," Woods said.

A spokeswoman for the Health Department said Saturday that none of the confirmed cases in the state have come from county jails or state prisons.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections, home to more than 16,000 inmates, has taken precautions similar to those imposed in other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons: suspending all visitation with inmates and taking the temperature of staff members and regular volunteers as they enter units. New volunteers are not allowed in.

To make up for the lack of in-person visits, the department reduced the price of phone calls and video visits between inmates and their family and friends.

The department also has begun transferring new arrivals from county jails in groups of 48 or 50 at a time, said prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler, so that they can be housed together in a single barracks and quarantined for two weeks.

"If you brought some germ in with you, we'll know," Tyler said.

As of Friday, no prisoners housed at the department had been tested for the coronavirus, Tyler said. Two state inmates recently have been tested for possible flu and tuberculosis.

It was unknown Friday whether any correction staff members had been tested for the coronavirus, but one employee -- a parole officer in Cleburne County -- was self-quarantining at home, Tyler said.

Some advocates for prison reform have argued for even more stringent measures to protect inmates.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sent a letter to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and more than a dozen stakeholders in the criminal justice system, asking for a reduction in arrests and detention for low-level, at-risk offenders.

Specifically, the group called on the governor to commute the sentences of inmates vulnerable to infection and approaching their release date.

"Being arrested and detained, incarcerated, or forced to appear in public spaces such as courts and supervision offices ... can drastically limit a person's ability to exercise any ... precautions or seek medical help," the ACLU letter read in part. "The longer jurisdictions wait to act, the worse this will be."

At a news conference on Thursday, Hutchinson praised the steps already taken by the state Department of Corrections. He indicated he was not considering the additional release of inmates.

"I'm not aware of any particular problems with overcrowding," Hutchinson said. "I think it's being maintained properly."

Hutchinson also noted that the Board of Corrections maintains emergency powers to speed up the release of inmates when there is overcrowding. The board has taken such action on a regular basis over the past decade because of prisons operating beyond their capacity.

Benny Magness, the chairman of the Board of Corrections, said the board may consider releasing some inmates under the Emergency Powers Act as early as this week.

The Department of Corrections was operating at 105% of its planned capacity as of Thursday, according to a population report. Another 1,337 state inmates awaiting transfer to prison were backed up in county jails.

The Association of Arkansas Counties sent a memo to its membership last week recommending a variety of measures that include screenings, temperature checks and the increased use of disinfectants at county jails to limit the spread of the virus.

The memo also recommended that jails discontinue in-person visitation for inmates, with exceptions for attorneys.

"We're concerned, rightly so, about jail populations as this thing expands," said Chris Villines, the director of the Association of Arkansas Counties.

The Pulaski County jail is among those that have halted in-person visitation and volunteer programs. Mitch McCoy, a spokesman for the Pulaski County sheriff's office, said inmates are instead being offered free 30-minute video visitation sessions each week.

The 1,210-bed jail was holding 968 inmates as of Friday, McCoy said. He attributed the recent drop in the jail's population both to the small release of offenders and to a smaller number of arrests as more workers stay home and businesses close their doors -- though he cautioned that it was too early to determine a cause for the decline in arrests.

"I don't know if right now we can say there's been a reduction in crime because at this point we are so early on into the pandemic," McCoy said. He added that the sheriff's office is offering added patrols to check on shuttered businesses.

Larry Jegley, the prosecuting attorney for the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers Pulaski and Perry counties, said he had spoken with Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins and was not limiting prosecutions of low-level offenses in response to the public health threat.

On Wednesday, Jegley's office said it would no longer require its prosecuting staff to appear in person in court "unless there is a compelling reason why their attendance is necessary."

The memo came after the Arkansas Supreme Court halted most in-person court appearances for noncriminal cases or other emergency matters.

Information for this article was contributed by Tom Sissom of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and William Sanders of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 03/23/2020