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COVID-19 Inside Arkansas Prisons: Virus Spreads Through Inmate Populations and Staff

The Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas has been the state prison hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
KATV-Channel 7

This is the first of a three-part series on the coronavirus outbreak in Arkansas prisons, supported by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

As the coronavirus pandemic has swept through Arkansas during the last three months — nearly 1,200 inmates in four of the state’s prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 134 staff working at eight state prisons have also tested positive.

The Cummins Unit, which is Arkansas’s oldest and largest state prison, became the state’s largest hotspot for the virus, with 11 inmates dying of COVID-19. Inmate DeMarco Raynor knew several of them.

“I knew Danny Woods real well. We talked almost every day. Kenneth Oden, I knew him real well, we were in a barracks together. Tony Harper, I knew him very well. Ronny West, I knew him,” Raynor said during a collect telephone call using a prison phone.

No one tested positive at the Cummins Unit until nearly a month after the U.S. was under a state of emergency due to the virus. On April 2, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, “I’m proud of what Wendy Kelley and her team has done as the Secretary of Corrections.” By then, the Department of Corrections had instructed wardens to quarantine new prisoners. It had also shut down in-person visits from family and friends.

“The key is there were no outside visitors. That’s what brings the outside contact in,” Hutchinson said. But staff were still going home each day at the end of their shifts. And once the first COVID-19 test came back positive, the number of cases quickly exploded inside the prison. We talked with half a dozen prisoners in barracks throughout Cummins for this story. All but one asked to be kept anonymous. They said they feared retaliation for raising concerns about the outbreak. 

On March 24, a worker at another state prison farm tested positive for COVID-19. Raynor says when Cummins prisoners first saw that report, “Everything kept going on as normal. They kept going to hoe squad. No prevention measures had been taken at that point. No masks at that point.”

Hoe squad is the prison term for the crew of inmates who work in the fields. Cummins has a more than 16,000-acre farm on land that used to be several slave plantations. Prisoners are still not paid for their work—only punished if they don’t work. They’re still supervised by guards on horseback. Each morning, everyone sits on big trailers to be driven to where they’ll labor for the day.

The hoe squad still rides out on trailers like this for unpaid work in the fields. This photo is from 1975, when folklorist and documentarian Bruce Jackson gained rare photographic access to daily life at the Cummins Unit. Photo used with permission.
Credit Bruce Jackson - Used with permission
Bruce Jackson - Used with permission
The hoe squad still rides out on trailers like this for unpaid work in the fields. This photo is from 1975, when folklorist and documentarian Bruce Jackson gained rare photographic access to daily life at the Cummins Unit.

“You had guys that were filing grievances about going to hoe squad and sitting together on a tight hoe squad trailer, where it’s impossible to be six feet apart,” Raynor said. Prison administration dismissed the grievances, he said. “They responded like it didn’t matter, like it was no big deal.”

Some concerned prisoners did not go to work and were punished.

“Over 19 guys got written disciplinaries for not going to work even though a pandemic was going on,” Raynor said.

Grievances and disciplinary actions are not public information, so it’s not possible to report how many the prison has on file, but inmates shared several for this report. Disciplinary measures are a big deal. They often mean losing access to phone calls and visits. If they add up, it can mean staying in prison longer and going to isolation—also called “the hole.”

Prisoners continued to work on the hoe squad until April 11, the day the first positive test result came back for an inmate at Cummins.

The state doesn’t know how COVID-19 got inside the prison, but a nurse at another Arkansas prison said in an interview that she tried to wear a mask in late March. She was instructed to take off the mask to avoid causing hysteria, she said.

Prisoners and staff at all prisons were required to wear masks by mid-April, but there is evidence suggesting compliance among staff was poor. In an internal email obtained for this report, Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne said hospitals were reluctant to accept prisoners because the staff dropping them off were not wearing masks.

As test results came back, the prison started trying to isolate people based on whether they had COVID-19. On April 19, Gov. Hutchinson said the Cummins Unit had “been segregated so that we have eight positive barracks and we have seven negative barracks.”

Things on the ground did not seem to play out this smoothly. Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith said the state tested approximately 2,500 prisoners and staff at Cummins during five days. However not all the results showed up in the department’s log until about one month later.

Many of the barracks at the Cummins Unit still have this open design, as photographed in 1974.
Credit Bruce Jackson - Used with permission
Bruce Jackson - Used with permission
Many of the barracks at the Cummins Unit still have this open design, as photographed in 1974.

The Cummins Unit contains barracks with up to 62 men sleeping together in an open room. One prisoner reports that he was tested, then was left inside a barrack with several sick people for two days. By the time his results came back negative and staff moved him to COVID-negative housing, the inmate says he was running a fever and feeling weak. He said no one asked how he was feeling or took his temperature before the transfer, and he did not know where he was going until he got there. He later tested positive.

The prisoner COVID-negative housing was an old school. Department of Corrections records show that in an effort to separate negative and positive cases, the prison moved people to live there and in a visitation room, the prison's law library, and temporary holding cells. Two inmates who spent time in these spaces say they didn’t have access to grievance forms to file complaints, didn’t have access to phones to call their families, and had to bathe with a hose. One prisoner says staff refused to take him to a regular shower with hot water until he threatened to rebel and break things.

The holding cells do not have toilets. A prisoner housed near them says that for at least several days in early May, the people inside were not allowed access to a bathroom. He said he saw prisoners resort to urinating on the floor. He also saw them physically picking up their feces and putting it in the hall, using a small trap door in the bolted door to the room.

The Department of Corrections did not release information requested for this report regarding how often people kept in holding cells without toilets have been allowed to use a bathroom.

Some prisoners, like DeMarco Raynor, say they were never moved at all, regardless of test results.

“I’m looking at a guy who tested negative right next to a guy who tested positive,” Raynor said during the telephone interview as he was seated alongside other inmates. The Department of Corrections did not disclose how many prisoners in Raynor’s barrack have tested negative and positive for COVID-19. Two other prisoners who share the barrack with Raynor showed their results for this story, with one negative and one positive.

As COVID-19 numbers inside Cummins were exploding into one of the largest known prison outbreaks in the country, Gov. Hutchinson emphasized that most prisoners were asymptomatic.

“They’re being cared for in terms of their medical needs. Almost all are asymptomatic in terms of not showing symptoms,” Hutchinson said at an April 19 press conference.

Raynor says he is confused about how that conclusion was reached.

“The barrack that I’m in, even though the majority of guys in here have symptoms — whether it’s fever, some chills, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea, all the things associated with COVID-19 — even though the majority of guys had symptoms, they said we were asymptomatic. That’s one of the things I’m still puzzled about. How could they say we’re asymptomatic, but we have eight out of nine [symptoms]?”

Health Secretary Smith said in an interview for this story that symptoms must be communicated by the person experiencing them.

“The only way to know whether someone has symptoms or not is to ask them. By definition, symptoms are something people report,” Smith later said he doesn’t consider prisoners to always be reliable sources.

“I’ve actually been in prison and interviewed inmates, and you get a lot of stuff that is verifiably untrue, and a lot of stuff that it’s impossible to verify one way or the other,” Smith said. “We at this point are less concerned with whether someone has symptoms and more concerned with whether they’re infected or not.”

Raynor says no nurses checked on his barrack for three weeks after testing. He put in a sick call saying he was experiencing COVID symptoms and says he didn’t hear from a nurse until four days later.

By mid-May, 65 Cummins staff and nearly 1,000 of its prisoners were confirmed to have COVID-19. 11 inmates at the prison have died of the virus since May 1, officials have reported.

Hear KUAR's Michael Hibblen speaking with reporter Anna Stitt about her three-part series.

Raynor said he is still processing the deaths and how they have been reported by the state.

“The scary part about it is this right here. If you look at the ADC [Arkansas Department of Corrections], what they’re putting out on the news, is that the first two guys that died, they said ‘they were both in their 60s and both serving life sentences.’ So they let it hang out there like, they were old and serving life anyway, so their life doesn’t have any type of merit to it.”

On May 2, when a reporter asked the governor to talk about those first two prisoners who died, Hutchinson said, “They passed away. They were in the maximum security unit at Cummins, which means they either had a life sentence, violent crime, or disciplinary issues while they were in prison; a very serious environment in which they are incarcerated.”

Raynor questions what that means for him as someone who’s been locked up for 20 years and hopes to one day be released.

“I caught my charge when I was 20 years old,” he said. “They sentenced me to life in prison. So the person that was involved with the crime that I’m here for is not the same person that speaks to you on this phone right now.”

The Department of Corrections posted the first five deaths on social media, then stopped announcing them.

Anna Stitt is an award-winning multimedia reporter. She grew up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, graduated from Swarthmore College and the Transom Story Workshop, and spent several years as a news producer at KNWA-TV in Fayetteville and KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. Her audio work has been featured on public radio stations across the U.S. She produced the series on COVID-19 in Arkansas prisons through a grant from the National Geographic Society.
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