LITTLE ROCK – The ACLU of Arkansas this week joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and other civil rights groups in issuing a Demand for Immediate Action for Southern government officials to implement desperately needed protections against COVID-19 infection and deaths in correctional and juvenile facilities throughout the South, which disproportionately incarcerated Black individuals. 

According to the ACLU of Arkansas’ Smart Justice Blueprint, despite accounting for only 15 percent of the state’s adult population, Black Arkansans accounted for 42 percent of the prison population in 2017, and an estimated one in 45 Black men in Arkansas was imprisoned that year. 

“Black Arkansans account for 42 percent of our prison population, and right now all of them are at risk of becoming victims of a public health catastrophe," said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas legal director and interim executive director. “Public health experts have been clear that reducing prison populations is vital to combating the spread of COVID-19. For the health and safety of all Arkansans, state officials must take immediate and aggressive steps to release vulnerable individuals from overcrowded prisons and jails – before it's too late.” 

With poor health outcomes, inadequate access to health care, and elevated poverty rates, the South, which incarcerates a larger portion of its population than any other region in the nation, is exceptionally vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in its facilities. The document lists four critical steps Southern officials must take to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people, as well as corrections staff, from viral outbreaks and deaths within these facilities. 

“Our demands are premised on the fact that the Constitution and our moral and legal obligations to protect the population from the devastation of this pandemic extends to those held in our nation’s prisons. To date, we have seen no comprehensive effort to respond to the potential for catastrophic harm from COVID-19 infection among the population of people who are held and who work in prison,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “Without these crucial protections, COVID-19 outbreaks within correctional facilities across the South are on the rise. We need clear and aggressive action by state and local officials to create and implement protocols that will protect against infection, especially for those most vulnerable, and provide effective health care to those infected by this deadly virus.”

The demands for immediate action for Southern officials are as follows:

  1. Release certain categories of the incarcerated population who are vulnerable to the virus and/or do not pose significant and imminent danger to the community.
  2. Take precautionary measures to protect the health of incarcerated people that are in compliance with established federal guidelines.
  3. Provide incarcerated people with access to appropriate medical care in medically appropriate settings.
  4. Make transparent public disclosures about the COVID-19 pandemic in all correctional and juvenile facilities, including any racial disparities.

Black people are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of their white counterparts. Moreover, Black people make up more than one-half of the prison population in twelve states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Due to pervasive health disparities, Black people, including incarcerated Black people, are more likely to suffer from medical conditions like diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease that increase the severity and mortality of COVID-19 infection. Yet, prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities are currently failing to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to protect against COVID-19, which makes incarcerated individuals extremely vulnerable to infection. Southern state and local governments must act immediately to prevent a public health and human rights catastrophe that will disproportionately harm Black people and other vulnerable and marginalized communities.