Today Governor Hutchinson announced the first death in Arkansas of a state employee, Richard Richardson.
Richardson, also known as “Donut,” was a star football player for Little Rock Central and, later, an All-Southwest Conference first team pick for the Razorbacks in 1982. The tributes are already pouring in online, and I imagine much will be written about Richardson who, after his football days ended, went on to have a successful career as a substance abuse counselor.
What really caught my attention was when Hutchinson referred to Richardson as a counselor for “community corrections.” I took that to mean Arkansas Community Correction, a division of the Arkansas Department of Correction. Being a defense attorney and having had a couple of family members work for the department, I know that some substance abuse counselors employed there work in residential units directly with inmates, or “residents” as they are called, and others work with out-of-custody probationers, parolees and drug court participants.
I called and spoke with Dina Tyler, the spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Correction, who told me Richardson worked with residents at the Central Arkansas Community Correction Center, a 150 bed unit in Little Rock for non-violent male offenders. There are five other similar correction centers around the state, including two units for women offenders. The “residents” there are not free to leave and are there through a judicial transfer from their sentence at the Arkansas Department of Correction, as part of a sentence of probation plus incarceration or at the direction of a drug court judge.
According to Tyler, Richardson, who she described as a very dedicated employee, last worked in the unit on April 2. Tyler said a few of the other employees are currently under quarantine and that residents are wearing masks from the 80,000 masks being produced by Arkansas inmates. Because the Arkansas Department of Correction has only been provided 250 tests for the entire prison population of over 15,000, the incarcerated residents are being monitored closely to determine if they met the CDC criteria to be tested.
I asked Tyler if there were any plans for early releases, other than already provided by law, from the community correction centers as the men and women incarcerated there are serving time for nonviolent and nonsexual offenses. Tyler said that they were using the tools they had under the law for early release of those incarcerated in both the Department of Correction and Community Correction. Any other releases would have to come from a change in the original sentence of incarceration or from Governor Hutchinson using his commutation powers.
I’m frustrated that Hutchinson and crew did not inform the press today at the briefing that Richardson worked in what is basically a minimum security prison in Arkansas, no matter what the Department of Correction calls the unit. Hutchinson has been asked about early releases at a previous briefing and, yesterday, Arkansas State Rep. Jamie Scott (D-North Little Rock) wrote him a letter expressing concern about maintaining the status quo during the COVID-19 pandemic and asking for the release of inmates who would not be a danger to society. It seems as if the nonviolent “residents” of the Arkansas Community Correction centers would certainly meet that criteria.
Despite a rising death count, Hutchinson seems to be happy if the numbers stay below the projections. That’s likely little solace for the families of the Arkansans who get sick and die from the virus and those who are worried sick about their incarcerated family members. It seems unlikely Hutchinson will deviate from his decision to gamble with the lives of inmates and corrections staff just as he gambles with the lives of the rest of the people of Arkansas by refusing to issue a shelter in place order. If he does change course, it just may be too late.