The following op-ed originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Here in Arkansas and throughout the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the disparities that pervade American life. The virus may not discriminate, but our society certainly does, as people of color, people with disabilities, and people with low-incomes have been hit hardest by this 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. As of December 11, more than 9,000 incarcerated people in Arkansas have contracted COVID-19 and 50 have died. According to the Marshall Project, a staggering 813 cases and at least three deaths have been reported among corrections staff, an untold number of whom brought the virus back to their families and communities. Two staff members of a juvenile assessment facility have died due to the virus.
Importantly, these outbreaks were not inevitable.
Public health experts advised from the beginning that reducing prison populations - along with other safeguards - was vital to protecting public health both inside and outside of correctional facilities. By strictly following CDC guidelines and releasing low-risk and vulnerable individuals from these crowded conditions, Arkansas could have slowed the spread and saved lives.
Governor Hutchinson’s administration ignored these warnings – but it’s not too late for them to change course.
Over the summer, NAACP LDF, the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, Disability Rights Arkansas, the ACLU of Arkansas and attorney Laura Fernandez filed suit challenging the inadequate measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, illness, and death in state prisons. While the court declined our request for emergency relief, we’re still battling in court to prevent more lives from being lost.
Through our litigation, we continue to hear that prisons are unsanitary, nutrition is insufficient, and there isn’t enough, if any, regular access to clean masks. Social distancing is impossible and medical care is inadequate. Corrections staff are asked to report to work – even if they test positive for COVID-19. One of our clients experienced symptoms for a month before he was quarantined while others waited weeks for medical treatment.
The stories we hear from our clients are heart-wrenching, and it doesn’t have to be this way. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the way, Governor Hutchinson’s administration has an opportunity to protect the health and safety of all Arkansans by taking steps to combat COVID-19 in state prisons.
First, incarcerated people must be included in the vaccine distribution plan, and should be treated similarly to other vulnerable people living in congregate settings, such as nursing homes.
Second, Arkansas DOC must immediately begin implementing all CDC guidelines to prevent further spread in prisons, and provide adequate medical care to people who become infected. This includes providing adequate PPE to all incarcerated people and staff, ensuring social distancing, and establishing humane quarantine procedures for people who become infected. The state should also minimize transfers and release all who safely can be released, especially in light of staffing shortages for corrections and medical staff.
Finally, Arkansas officials should embrace common-sense reforms that will break our addiction to mass incarceration once and for all. Locking people away in brutal and traumatic conditions does not help them become productive members of society. It doesn’t provide victims the support they need to heal. And studies have confirmed that mass incarceration 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 locking people up for crimes stemming from poverty, mental illness, and addiction abuse would be far better spent addressing the root causes of these challenges.
COVID-19 is a powerful reminder that what happens in our prisons impacts all of our communities. As Dr. Brie Williams, a professor and researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, recently told Pew Trusts: “This is why public health officials say correctional health is public health.”
Mass incarceration is a waste of taxpayer money that inflicts profound trauma on families and communities. It is also, literally, making people sick.
Governor Hutchinson and his administration have the power to save lives and protect the health of all Arkansans by prioritizing people, not prisons.