On April 21, 2020, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, Disability Rights Arkansas, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and attorney Laura Fernandez filed an emergency complaint and request for temporary restraining order against Governor Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) officials on behalf of Arkansas state prisoners over the inadequate measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, illness, and death in state correctional facilities.
Incarcerated people, including the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, are disproportionately Black and have significantly higher rates of serious medical conditions, like heart disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes that make them especially vulnerable to severe illness or death from the virus. State officials have worsened these risks by failing to take essential measures to ensure social distancing, safe and sanitary conditions, and ready access to hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an especially severe public health risk in correctional facilities, which incarcerate Black individuals at five times the rate of white individuals nationwide. Inmates typically reside in crowded facilities where they are unable to practice social distancing and frequently lack ready access to soap, sanitizer, cleaning products, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Currently, incarcerated people make up approximately one in three verified COVID-19 infections statewide. Even with these alarming figures, the actual number of COVID-19 infections in prisons is likely much higher due to the lack of widespread testing. Prisoners who are elderly and who have serious underlying medical conditions, like respiratory illness, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension are especially vulnerable to severe, if not fatal, complications from the virus.
Despite these factors, Arkansas officials are failing to adhere to established guidelines issued a month ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically for correctional facilities to protect against COVID-19 spread and illness.