Pandemic Proof: Incarceration a public health crisis
Last month, three independent newsgroups--The New Yorker, The Nation (in collaboration with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and the Arkansas Times) and KUAR reported what those of us who work in carceral justice in Arkansas had been hearing for months: Covid-19 is tearing through Arkansas' prison system. Cummins Unit, where the virus hit in March, has received the bulk of the press. According to the Arkansas Department of Health Report from July 6, 993 residents and 67 staff tested positive for coronavirus. Yet the thing that Gov. Asa Hutchinson isn't talking about in his press conferences is just how widespread covid is throughout Arkansas' prisons. He's continued to announce the numbers, but without giving a sense of exactly where they're coming from. As of July 3, positive coronavirus cases had been officially detected in seven jails and prisons in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, with a total of 2,581 active cases, including in two juvenile detention centers, and 14 deaths. There are certainly cases at the ICE detention centers in Arkansas as well.
There's no reason to think this scenario could have been any different. People in prison have always received substandard health care and the ADC has always been unequipped to prepare for a moment like this. Reports on the neglect of Wellpath, the for-profit health-care provider that operates in our state's prisons, reveal horrifying human-rights violations inside ADC from before covid-19: nurses shredding inmates' sick calls, two-week wait times for sick inmates, a doctor who has had his medical license suspended three times for, in one case, "gross negligence and ignorant malpractice."
Like it's done for so many of our social systems, covid is proving in prisons what we already knew: Incarceration is always a public health crisis. And since social distance is not possible in prison, the risk for widespread transmission was basically guaranteed.
Speaking during one of Governor Hutchinson's early press conferences, ADC Secretary Wendy Kelley said--contrary to the governor--that once covid entered the Arkansas prison system "it would be disastrous." Kelley hasn't spoken at Hutchinson's press conferences since she made her statement in April, and she just announced plans to retire at the end of this month.
It's troubling that Governor Hutchinson has taken particular issue with a piece of Arkansas history touched on in some of these articles--the history of Cummins as a former plantation, and the labor at Cummins as arising from prison slave labor. From the governor's statement on the issue, one would think that the history of Cummins as a former plantation had been corrected, so to speak, by the "significant reforms and the efforts in fighting covid-19 in the prison system." However, it's really important to understand how the context of this moment is rooted in centuries of systemic racism and injustice (which the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought into focus).
The governor and the Department of Health's statements throughout the last few months have also been inconsistent with what decARcerate is hearing from people in prison and their family members about containment and precautions. Since early in the crisis, there's been this counter-narrative from the top down, but part of what these articles validate are the real conditions inside.
One of the most particularly disturbing reports from the KUAR series is in an interview with the Secretary of Health, Nate Smith (who speaks in the governor's press conferences), where the KUAR journalist asks him about all the contradictory reports. Smith's response is that prisoners lie. This is an attempt to discredit the prisoners trying desperately to stay alive and alert their families to the real dangers of the pandemic within prison walls.
The governor and ADC have attempted in the last month to discredit what is now three independent journalists from three independent organizations, working independently from one another, with corroborating narratives. The attempt by the state to claim all of that as not credible, as unreliable, is simply offensive. By erasing the experiences of people in prison during the pandemic, particularly at Cummins, the governor perpetuates the oppression and cruelty of slavery.
Zachary Crow is executive director of decARcerate, a grass-roots coalition working to end mass incarceration in Arkansas through community education, smart legislation, advocacy and activism.