Here in Arkansas and across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the differences that pervade American life. The virus may not discriminate, but our society certainly does, as people of color, people with disabilities and people on low incomes are most affected by the disease.
Nowhere is this more true than in Arkansas prisons, which have the second highest per capita rate of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the country. By December 11, more than 9,000 people incarcerated in Arkansas had gotten Covid-19; 50 had died. A staggering 813 cases and at least three deaths have been reported among correction workers, according to the Marshall Project, countless numbers of which brought the virus back to their families and communities. Two employees of a youth assessment facility have died as a result of the virus.
What is important is that these outbreaks were not inevitable.
From the outset, public health experts advised that reducing prison populations, along with other protective measures, is critical to protecting public health both inside and outside of correctional facilities. By strictly following CDC guidelines and releasing low-risk and vulnerable people from these crowded conditions, Arkansas could have slowed the spread and saved lives.
Governor Asa Hutchinson’s administration ignored these warnings – but it is not too late to change course.
Over the summer, NAACP LDF, law firm Squire Patton Boggs, Disability Rights Arkansas, the Arkansas ACLU, and Attorney Laura Fernandez filed lawsuits against the inadequate measures in state prisons to prevent the transmission, disease, and death of Covid-19. While the court has denied our request for emergency aid, we are still fighting in court to prevent more lives from being lost.
Through our litigation, we continue to hear that prisons are unsanitary, the diet is inadequate, and there is not enough, if any, regular access to clean masks. Social distancing is impossible and medical care is inadequate. Proofreaders are asked to report to work even if they test positive for covid-19. One of our customers had symptoms for a month before being quarantined, while others waited weeks for medical treatment.
The stories we hear from our customers are heartbreaking and don’t have to be like that. With a Covid-19 vaccine on the way, Governor Hutchinson’s government has an opportunity to protect the health and safety of all Arcansan by taking action to combat Covid-19 in state prisons.
First, incarcerated people must be included in the vaccine distribution plan and should be treated in a manner similar to other vulnerable people living in congregations such as nursing homes.
Second, Arkansas DOC must immediately begin implementing all CDC guidelines to prevent further spread in prisons and to provide adequate medical care to infected people. This includes providing adequate PPE for all detainees and employees, ensuring social distancing and establishing humane quarantine procedures for infected people. The state should also minimize transfers and release anyone who can be released safely, especially given the staff shortage.
Finally, Arkansas officials should embrace common sense reforms that will end our addiction to mass imprisonment once and for all. Locking people up in brutal and traumatic conditions does not help them become productive members of society. It does not provide the victims with the support they need to heal. And studies have shown that being abundant does not reduce crime.
Arkansas spent $ 433 million of its general fund on corrections in 2017 – a 455 percent increase since 1985. The dollars we spend imprisoning people for crimes of poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse would be far better for them Addressing the root causes of these challenges employed.
Covid-19 is a powerful reminder that what happens in our prisons affects all of our communities. Dr. Brie Williams, a professor and researcher at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, recently told Pew Trusts, “This is why public health officials say health in health is public health.”
Massive is a waste of taxpayers’ money that inflicts profound trauma on families and communities. It also literally makes people sick.
Governor Hutchinson and his administration have the power to save lives and protect the health of all Arcansan by prioritizing people, not prisons.
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Holly Dickson is the executive director of the Arkansas ACLU.