LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas officials released 300 inmates early from the state’s overcrowded prisons as a precaution during the coronavirus crisis.
Dexter Payne, head of Arkansas’ correction division, said Thursday during court testimony that there will be additional releases once inmates are screened and cleared by the Parole Board.
Payne testified in the ongoing federal lawsuit that 11 inmates brought against the Arkansas Department of Corrections. They allege that state prison officials have mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and put inmates at a higher risk of infection, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Friday.
The releases came after Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s April 20 directive to consider the early release of inmates imprisoned for nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, said Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the prison system. The state Board of Corrections has made 1,244 inmates immediately eligible for parole consideration.
Those approved for parole must create a parole plan and finish outstanding program requirements in prison before they can be released, officials said.
The state’s male prisons remain strained beyond capacity despite the releases. The Cummins Unit, which has the largest number of coronavirus cases in the state, is among the prisons that are above capacity.
As of Friday, 896 inmates and 60 staff members at Cummins Unit have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, the Health Department said. Six inmates have died.
The inmates who filed the lawsuit against the state asked U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker to issue a preliminary injunction to release older and medically frail inmates who are at a higher risk of falling seriously ill from the virus. The judge didn’t rule on that request Thursday.
Earlier this week, Baker denied the prisoners’ request for an emergency injunction that would have forced prison officials to provide inmates with enhanced access to sanitation supplies and more space between beds.
Meanwhile, state health officials released guidance allowing some staff who tested positive for the virus to return to work, prison officials said.
Payne noted that fewer than 10 staff members who have tested positive for the virus are currently working at the Cummins Unit. He said those employees are asymptomatic and work where inmates have tested positive for the virus.