Arkansas Prisoners' Lawsuit Seeks Release Of Disabled Inmates, Better Sanitary Conditions

Apr 22, 2020

The Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas, seen here on April 18, 2017, has had 680 inmates and staff test positive for COVID-19. The federal lawsuit accuses the state of a "complete disregard for the health and safety" of inmates.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A federal lawsuit accuses Arkansas of violating the constitutional and legal rights of prison inmates by not taking adequate steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The class-action complaint was filed Tuesday on behalf of 11 inmates at state prisons, including three at the Cummins Unit in southeast Arkansas, where 670 inmates have tested positive.

The suit calls for the release of disabled inmates and better sanitary conditions, according to attorney Omavi Shukur with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Arkansas.

He says the state disregarded guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about best practices in prisons during the outbreak.

"Some of the plaintiffs have given us, frankly, horror stories," Shukur said.

At the Cummins Unit, he says inmates report that barracks housing people testing positive have not been cleared out for a thorough disinfecting, dining tables are cleaned with recycled water and showers are not being cleaned daily. Shukur also says inmates are not being given what they need to protect themselves.

"We want the Department of Corrections, we want the state to give incarcerated people access to needed hygiene products," Shukur said, "like hand sanitizer, running water, a means to dry their hands, face masks. We want them to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces multiple times a day."

The lawsuit also asks for disabled inmates and those suffering chronic health conditions who are more susceptible to COVID-19 to be released from prison.

Last weekend, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was asking the state Parole Board to review the cases of nearly 2,000 non-violent offenders who could be released early to make more room in prisons in case additional isolation space is needed. But Shukur argues that should be expanded to include people convicted of violent crimes decades ago who are today elderly and disabled.

"This idea that everybody who’s incarcerated for a violent offence is a current threat to the general population is a myth. Some people who were incarcerated in the [1960s] or ‘70s for a violent offense right now are in their ‘80s. Some of them are wheelchair-bound, some of them have very debilitating medical conditions that don’t make them a danger to anybody," Shukur said.

Gov. Hutchinson was asked about the court filing in Tuesday’s daily briefing, but couldn’t say much.

"Well, I just was handed that lawsuit moments before I came in here, so I haven’t read it in detail," Hutchinson said.

670 inmates at Cummins, along with 10 prison staff have tested positive for the virus, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. All of those in exposed areas have now been tested, Hutchinson said, but he still expects the number of positive cases to continue rising. The governor credited the efforts of Health Secretary Dr. Nate Smith and Corrections Secretary Wendy Kelley for slowing the spread.

"We’re trying to curtail it. We’re trying to know exactly where we stand in that prison environment. So we’ll look at that, but I have full confidence in Dr. Smith and his team working with Secretary Kelley, that they’re going to extraordinary lengths to make sure the inmates are having the proper health protocols in that environment," Hutchinson said.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker. Plaintiffs are asking for a temporary restraining order against the state. They also want a special master to be appointed who will determine which inmates to release, while overseeing the safety of the prison population during this pandemic.