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COVID-19 Inside Arkansas Prisons: The Past and Future

A guard holds a drink while prisoners work in the field behind him at the Cummins Unit. This photo is from 1975, when folklorist and documentarian Bruce Jackson gained rare photographic access to daily life at Cummins. In 2020, multiple Arkansas prisons s
Bruce Jackson - Used with permission


As of this week, COVID-19 has infected inmates in four Arkansas state prisons. The virus exploded at the Cummins Unit first, and quickly became one of the country’s largest known prison outbreaks.

Established in 1902, Cummins is the state’s oldest and largest prison. It is named after one of the slave plantations that was there before.

“I have a vivid memory of pulling up to the Cummins Unit,” said Kaleem Nazeem. He was convicted as a juvenile and spent 27 years in Arkansas prisons. 12 of those years were at the Cummins Unit.

“When I was like nine or 10 years old, I used to always say to myself, how did people go for slavery,” Nazeem recently reflected. “I would have rebelled. I would have did this and I would have did that. On my way to the Cummins Unit, as we was driving up to the unit, we was just driving along these corridors of just fields, fields, fields as far as the eye could see. And all these fields was just planted with cotton.”

Nazeem says as he got closer to the prison that late summer day in the early 1990s, he started seeing figures dotting the fields.

“As you got closer, you recognize that these are people out there picking cotton. But not only are they picking cotton, behind them, you have riders on horses with big shotguns pushing them up the field. At that moment, I said to myself, damn. They got me.”

The prison has a legacy of scandal. Human skeletons were found buried at Cummins in 1968. In the 1980s and 1990s, the prison made international news for selling HIV and hepatitis-infected blood to hospital patients in multiple countries.

Prisoners with death sentences are housed at the Varner Unit Supermax a few miles away, but Cummins has the death chamber. In 2017, Gov. Asa Hutchinson tried to order eight men to be executed there in 11 days before the state’s supply of one lethal injection drug expired. After legal challenges, four men were executed within a week.

Varner Arkansas Department of Correction Cummins Prison
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News
Arkansas State Police guard the entrance to Cummins Prison on April 18, 2017, one of the nights executions were scheduled.

Over the last few years, multiple news outlets have reported on clusters of deaths from the synthetic drug K2 across Arkansas state prisons, including at Cummins. Today, guards on horses still watch prisoners as they do unpaid labor in the fields.

The Cummins Unit was overcrowded by about 100 prisoners throughout the month of April. On April 11, the first inmate at Cummins tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, a reporter asked Hutchinson about the possibility of releasing some prisoners to make more space for social distancing.

“There’s some who would like the governor to use his pardon and commutation powers to thin the ranks of the inmates,” the reporter said during a press conference. Hutchinson replied, “This is an example of where that would be unwise. There’s a reason that these inmates are in a maximum security unit. And so, I don’t see that happening.”

On April 21, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Arkansas teamed up to sue the Arkansas Department of Corrections on behalf of prisoners. Among other things, they asked the department to regularly sanitize the prison with cleaners known to be effective against COVID-19 and to release medically vulnerable people.

A judge denied their request for temporary relief last month, saying there was not enough evidence that the Department of Corrections was mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak.

At the end of April, the Board of Corrections approved a list of more than 1,200 prisoners who were already eligible for parole in six months or less, and who had no serious crimes against people on their records. The parole board and Division of Correction Director Dexter Payne then removed some names. So far, the state says it has released about half of the prisoners who were included on the list.

Unlike in nursing homes and hospitals where the Department of Health retests COVID-positive patients before classifying them as recovered, the department assumes that prisoners have recovered 14 days after they test positive. Based on this, the Department of Corrections says almost all Cummins prisoners have now recovered.

The virus has spread beyond the Cummins Unit, however. About 42% of prisoners at the Randall Williams Unit in Pine Bluff have now tested positive for COVID-19, and at least one person incarcerated there has died from the disease. At least 29 prisoners have tested positive at the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys, and at least one has tested positive at the Grimes Unit in Newport.

At the Varner Unit, at least two staff have tested positive. A prisoner there, Kenny Halfacre, died in his barrack on May 26. The coroner’s report says he was struggling to breathe before he died.

Department of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith says anyone in a barrack with a COVID-positive person will be tested. Asked if Halfacre would be tested postmortem, Dr. Smith said that would be up to a doctor from Wellpath, the company contracted to provide medical services in Arkansas’s prisons. An inmate inside Halfacre’s barrack says he and multiple others have experienced symptoms and requested tests since the death. He says they have been denied.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners is still moving through the courts. The Department of Corrections filed a motion to block prisoners’ attorneys from gaining access to evidence like security footage, prisoner grievances and disciplinaries, and documentation of how prisoners and staff have moved around state prisons during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The judge did not approve the stay, so attorneys say they are gathering more evidence now. They hope the case can still impact how the department addresses COVID in other state prisons—but the trial for the case could happen as late as April 2021.

Images of the Cummins Unit in October 1994 from a photograph contact sheet.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News
Images of the Cummins Unit in October 1994 from a photograph contact sheet.

Concerned families of inmates and formerly incarcerated people are not waiting on the courts to ask for the Department of Corrections to make changes.

On May 16, a crowd of family members and friends protested outside the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, asking that prisoners receive adequate meals and medical care. On June 1, a coalition of five organizations delivered a list of demands to the governor’s office. The demands include permanently eliminating medical copays, eliminating the cost of calls to family while visits are banned, and releasing prisoners at high risk of dying from COVID-19 to complete their sentences through in-home confinement. The coalition says Hutchinson has not yet responded to the demands.

While many people connected to prisoners express concern, Gov. Hutchinson and Department of Health Secretary Dr. Smith have both publicly praised Arkansas’s response to COVID-19 inside the state’s prisons.

“Thank goodness Cummins is the one that we’ve had the largest outbreak in,” Hutchinson said at a press conference on May 4. “And I think we’ve addressed it very aggressively there.”

In an interview for this report, Dr. Smith said, “I think working together with the Wellpath people and the Department of Corrections, they understand the need to have a higher index of suspicion and to do that initial testing more quickly so that we can respond more quickly. In terms of what we did after we were aware of the first case, I would really put that up against any other health department in the country.”

Cecelia Tate was raising a daughter with Derick Coley who was in isolation with COVID-19 up until the day he died. She says she does not see anything to praise about the state’s response to COVID-19.

“Maybe they don’t care because they’re criminals, but they got family out here that love them. They should think about if it was they sons in there. They wouldn’t want nobody to treat them like that. If they don’t want to take care of them, close Cummins down,” Tate said.

Kaleem Nazeem got out a year and a half before COVID-19 hit. But after 27 years inside, he’s still in touch with a lot of incarcerated people. He says the abuses of the past do not feel far away.

“It’s not hard to see the way history is literally repeating itself. In the 1970s, it was bodies buried in the field that everybody turned their eyes to. Well today, during the COVID-19 epidemic, we have bodies buried within the walls of these prisons.”

This is the final report 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.

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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