Virus deaths at 39 in state's prisons; 11 inmates were eligible for parole

FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2009, file photo, an officer patrols a cell block at the Cummins Unit near Varner.

More than a quarter of the 39 state prisoners who have died after testing positive for the coronavirus had been eligible for parole, according to a review of those deaths reported by the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

As the virus has infected thousands in more than a dozen state prisons, the majority of those who have died at prisons were serving longer sentences and were in a population shown to be more vulnerable to serious illness or death from covid-19, comprising those who are older and have preexisting health problems.

The state's focus, meanwhile, has been on releasing those serving time for nonviolent and nonsexual offenses to reduce prison crowding. These inmates generally have shorter sentences.

Still, the majority of the prisoners who died after contracting the virus were due to become eligible for release at some point in their lives. Only 12 of the 39 were serving life sentences, and another would not have been eligible for parole until he was at least 127.

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There were 11 who had already reached parole eligibility and at least four who had received denial or deferrals from the Parole Board in the year before their deaths.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compiled information from coroners' reports, court records and the Department of Corrections to track the 39 reported deaths.

While the Department of Corrections has typically announced the deaths of inmates who tested positive for covid-19 along with their prison units and details about their sentences, the agency has not released the names of inmates who died. Using coroners' reports, the paper has been able to identify 20 prisoners who died of the coronavirus.

Some, like 71-year-old Leonard Hicks of Junction City, were still a few years away from reaching their parole eligibility date.

Hicks' cousin, Ellis Hicks, had written to the Parole Board and the governor's office asking for Leonard Hicks to be considered for compassionate release due to several medical conditions, including lung cancer and heart disease -- which were later noted in a coroner's report.

Leonard Hicks was in his third year of a 17-year sentence for aiding someone else in selling methamphetamines. He would have been eligible for parole in March 2022.

"He could hardly breathe; he was wheelchair-bound," Ellis Hicks said last week. "They treated him like it was a high-degree felony; it wasn't."

A representative of the Parole Board could not be reached for comment.

Before an inmate reaches his parole, or "transfer eligibility," date, the Parole Board must begin a preliminary review of the case, and it may eventually decide to either transfer a prisoner to supervision by the Department of Community Correction or deny parole while prescribing a "course of action" for the prisoner to rectify the board's concerns, according to Arkansas Code Annotated 6-19-615.

Even prisoners who have been approved for parole, however, may remain in prison for some time while they complete any remaining programs or wait to have their parole plans approved.

Of the 11 deceased inmates who had already reached their parole eligibility dates, two had done so just a few months before their deaths. Another man, a 67-year-old prisoner at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern whose name was not released by the Corrections Department, had been parole-eligible since 2006 and was nearly two-thirds of the way through his 30-year prison sentence for incest when he died.

Holly Dickson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, called it "tragic" that some prisoners had died while serving beyond their parole eligibility date, and she called on the state to release even more prisoners as a precaution against the virus, including violent and sexual offenders who had served long prison sentences.

Dickson pointed to a report by the ACLU that found that crime rates in 28 of 29 American cities surveyed had decreased between March and May, even as their local jails reduced their populations. The survey did not include any cities in Arkansas.

"The government's excuse that we'll see an increase in crime if we release people doesn't hold water," Dickson said. "That's the gist of this report."

In April, the Arkansas Board of Correction, following the direction of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, voted to expedite parole consideration for more than 1,200 inmates because of covid-19. Inmates were excluded from the list if they were incarcerated for violent or sexual offenses. Of those on that list, 849 had been released as of Friday, according to a Corrections Department spokeswoman.

Of the 39 state prisoners who died, 34 were serving time for violent or sexual offenses, the majority of which were rapes or murders. Twenty-three were age 60 or older.

Asked Friday whether any additional consideration would be given to the release of older offenders with violent or sex-offense records, Hutchinson did not signal any plans to do so, noting that "there are humanitarian requests that can be made."

"My direction was that we ought to look at the early release in terms of those that are nonviolent and not sexual offenders and that are getting closer to their release date," Hutchinson said.

The oldest inmate to die from the virus was an 82-year-old man from the Ouachita River Unit serving a life sentence for sexual assault. His name was not released.

The youngest was Derick Coley, a 29-year-old whose death was attributed to a pulmonary embolism that may have been caused by covid-19, according to an autopsy by the state Crime Laboratory.

Coley, who was serving a 20-year sentence for a shooting in his hometown of Magnolia, became eligible for parole in June 2018. He received a deferral from the Parole Board in May 2019, according to the board's online records.

The longest-serving inmate to have died after contracting the virus was Roy Davis, a 76-year-old at the Cummins Unit who was serving a life sentence for murder. He was sentenced to prison in 1972, according to information provided by the department.

The Arkansas prison system has had a higher percentage of its prison population test positive for the coronavirus than any other state in the nation, according to the Marshall Project.

Efforts to reduce the number of people inside state prisons and a halt in the intake of male prisoners in June have brought the population below the prison system's capacity for the first time in a decade.

On Friday, there were 14,192 people held in state prisons, about 92% of capacity.

Hutchinson's Corrections Department secretary, Solomon Graves, announced on Thursday that the prison system would resume intake of male inmates from county jails for the Ouachita River Unit. At the time, he said there were 432 active cases of the virus throughout the prison system.

Information for this article was contributed by Eric Besson, Ginny Monk and Lisa Hammersly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.