A COVID-19 prison outbreak should be a concern for ALL Arkansans

Dear Governor and Secretary Smith:

I covered the Arkansas Department of Correction during many of my 15 years as a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. 

I later served as the public information officer and legislative liaison for ADC.

Both of those roles allowed me regular access to every state prison in Arkansas.

Which is why I am alarmed by your attempts to minimize the potential impact of inmate and staff COVID-19 infections on the state of Arkansas as a whole. 

Even if you’re comfortable with writing off the inmates – most of whom, it should be noted, were sentenced to prison terms, not death – what about the thousands of employees who work for ADC?

Yeah, you can keep describing the prison system as a “congregant setting,” but the fact is that it also is a fluid one.

Inmates get transferred all the time – from one prison unit to another, to new barracks within the same unit, to places where they have requested specific work assignments. I know this because during my time at ADC, my office handled constituent services. Many of the calls we received were from family members asking to which facility their loved ones had been most recently transferred.

And then there’s the staff. Wardens and correctional officers get promoted and transferred all the time. For example, some officers opt to go to the maximum-security units in order to collect the  hazardous-duty pay. Others may put in for a transfer to a unit closer to home.

All it will take to send the statewide numbers soaring is one asymptomatic staff member who decides to make a quick stop at the grocery store on the way home.

Now let’s factor in the thousands of support staff – administrative assistants, record-keepers, researchers, the finance folks, the department heads and their many employees … and on and on and on.

Most of these staff members work in the prison units, not Central Office, which is located in Pine Bluff.

(Speaking of Central Office, guess who does all of the janitorial work, the yardwork and heavy manual lifting there? Inmates. They arrive each morning and depart in the evening.)

Anyway – so now let’s think about the thousands of ADC employees who go home to their communities after each workday. They shop at local stores, order from restaurants, go to the grocery and do all of the things that every other Arkansan does. That means they are in frequent contact with other members of their communities. Again, all it takes is one asymptomatic employee to bring a potentially deadly virus to his or her hometown.

I’m pretty sure you realize that this virus is going to spread to other prison units. And we know that this virus feeds on community spread.

Here’s the thing: Each prison is a community. And each prison will see staff and newly paroled inmates heading back to their free-world communities and hometowns.

That’s why you should care about what is happening at the Cummins Unit.

Oh, but wait – the potential for dire outcomes gets even worse.

ADC contracts with outside medical providers. Those nurses and doctors also are coming and going. They are testing and treating sick inmates each and every day – before heading home to their own communities.

And what about the EMTs who

are frequently called to prison units? Will it “count” if paramedics get COVID-19? Or are they exempt from the statewide tally because they may temporarily become a part of ADC’s “congregant setting” during emergencies?

And what about the medical staff at hospitals across the state? They also risk infection by treating inmates and ADC staff who require hospitalization during their battles with COVID-19. Do they count?

Guess who else gets called out to state prisons? Sheriff’s deputies and Arkansas State Police. These are the men and women who are transporting inmates from jails to prison units and vice versa. They also provide transport to and from court appearances.

Lastly, as I’m sure you are aware, ADC has its own school district, the Arkansas Correctional School. State prisons house classrooms and computer labs. Guess who is in and out of those classrooms and labs? Teachers. Administrators. Volunteers.

Do they count?

This virus knows no boundaries. It spreads from community to community – regardless of whether a community’s residents live in homes or prison units.

To say that ADC’s virus tallies should be considered “separately” from the statewide counts is a travesty.

You are telling thousands upon thousands of Arkansas families that their loved ones “don’t count” because they are incarcerated.

You are telling ADC staff that they “don’t count” because they may have caught the virus in a prison unit.

You are telling contracted medical providers, teachers, EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, ASP and hospitals scattered across the state that they shouldn’t worry because a virus outbreak in the prison system can be contained (ha!) and mitigated.

That is a slap in the face to all Arkansans. What’s happening in Cummins isn’t just a blip to be ignored. Rather, it is yet further proof that you are more concerned about messaging and spin than the health and safety of ALL Arkansans.

Shame on you.

One thought on “A COVID-19 prison outbreak should be a concern for ALL Arkansans

  1. Thank you for this. I would like to add that the Department of Community Corrections operate facilities throughout the state and are not counted under the ADC numbers. Our Community Corrections Centers, like the facility that Richard Richardson worked, are being ignored and swept under the rug. This population is 100% nonviolent, nonsex offenders, in the regional facilities for less than a year. The governor said they would “review” the nonviolent offenders with 6 months or less, yet no mention of the detainees in the Community Correctional facilities. Thank you again.


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