LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas received a failing grade, F+, in a new ACLU report grading all 50 states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails. The report, titled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons,” shows that, despite having ample time and information to take the steps necessary to heed the warnings of experts and save the lives of those incarcerated in their prisons and jails, state governments across the country refused to adequately address the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses in jails and prisons. The new report explains how each state ignored the pleas of incarcerated people and the warnings of medical experts. 

“This report affirms what we already knew: Arkansas state officials have utterly failed to protect the people in their custody – putting all Arkansans at risk,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “The rampant outbreaks in Arkansas prisons and jails disproportionately impact Black people, compounding the injustice of our racially biased criminal legal system. As Arkansas continues to face a worsening COVID-19 outbreak, releasing people from these dangerous conditions is vital to protecting public health and saving lives.” 

In Arkansas, according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, more than 2,301 people incarcerated in state prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, the 8th highest in the country. Eleven incarcerated people have died.

In April, the ACLU of Arkansas joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, Disability Rights Arkansas, and attorney Laura Fernandez in filing 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. 

“Governors across the nation have failed to take adequate steps to protect people in prisons and jails from the COVID-19 pandemic. From the outset of the pandemic, public health experts sounded the alarm that without swift and drastic actions, prisons and jails across the country would see severe outbreaks of COVID-19,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division. “Today, prisons and jails are ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, inflicting particular devastation on Black and Brown people, yet prisons and jails continue to be largely ignored in the government’s response to the pandemic. This report not only highlights that callous disregard but provides actionable steps for those same governments to take immediate steps to save the lives of people in jails and prisons.” 

“Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons” comes at a time when COVID-19 is still decimating jails and prisons. Millions of people leave jails and prisons every year, each person serving as a vector to outside communities, as documented in a recent ACLU report. Too many facilities are still responding ineffectively in a way that further undermines public health and basic human rights. The assessments in the report offer guidance as to what states can still do to save lives now and in the case of future waves of COVID-19 — or future pandemics. There is a key lesson to be learned: States must downsize the footprint of their criminal legal system for the sake of public health and racial justice.