Like state prisons across the country, prisons in Arkansas are too crowded to safely deal with the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic. Already strained for capacity before the pandemic, Arkansas prisons are now facing a virus that preys on people in close quarters. This includes the Cummins Unit, which had nearly 900 infections in a facility built to house 1876 inmates—the largest number of coronavirus cases of all prisons in the state.
The state of Arkansas has acknowledged that their prisons are not configured for social distancing in the age of COVID-19. Indeed, Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Asher Steinberg noted that “These [Arkansas state] prisons were not constructed to house people six feet apart, they were constructed on an open-barracks model.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency on March 17 due to COVID-19—extended on April 13—authorizing state agencies to suspend statutes, orders, and rules in order to fight the spread of COVID-19. On April 19, Gov. Hutchinson announced that he had asked the Parole Board and ADC to identify and review nonviolent inmates who are not sex offenders, and who are due for release within the next six months. These individuals are to be carefully evaluated and considered for release due to the public health emergency.
In accordance with these orders, the Arkansas Board of Corrections, which manages correctional resources in the state, suspended a rule that inmates must have served at least six months in ADC before being considered for parole, in a measure designed to help alleviate overcrowding.
In keeping with the governor’s request, in order for an inmate to be considered for this early parole, their conviction must not have been for a violent or sexual crime. If they make this initial list, the release can be approved by the Parole Board and the ADC Director Dexter Payne—but only if the inmate has an acceptable parole plan.
Further public safety safeguards are required for anyone granted release. They are required to undergo COVID-19 screening and if any are symptomatic, they will be administered a test for COVID-19. Those who test positive will not be released until they are medically cleared.
In contrast to categorical blanket releases, this thoughtfully considered process, involving several essential gatekeepers, balances the need to respond to the viral threat behind prison walls with the need to protect the public. The Arkansas Board of Corrections’ action has made 1,244 inmates eligible for consideration by the Parole Board, and as of this writing, 300 have been released.
Further, by releasing non-violent inmates who are near their release dates and reducing the inmate population before they are infected, the health and safety of the general public is served because fewer infected prisoners means less of a chance that they will have to be treated in increasingly-overwhelmed public healthcare systems.
Balancing public safety and public health in the COVID-19 crisis is not easy, especially in a state with a prison system that is overburdened. Gov. Hutchinson and the ADC have found a way to prioritize public safety while allowing for the release of a specific population—which makes more sense than general release. Arkansas’ prison system, including both the incarcerated population and the staff, as well as the people of Arkansas, should benefit from the decisive and timely actions of their public servants.