Federal Judge Kristine Baker today denied the request for injunctive relief for state prison inmates challenging health conditions in Arkansas prisons in response to coronavirus.

The suit, brought in the name of inmates at four prison units by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Disability Rights Arkansas, said conditions created a serious risk of disease. It asked for more separation, hygiene supplies and release or home detention of some prisoners particularly at risk. Arkansas has experienced mass outbreaks, including deaths, at Cummins prison, the Randall Wiliams unit in Pine Bluff and a community corrections facility in Little Rock.

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In a 73-page ruling that recounted much of the evidence offered by plaintiffs and the state’s response that it was complying with health guidelines, the judge found that plaintiffs hadn’t met the standard for injunctive relief, particularly likelihood of success on the merits at a full trial. She found fault in some prison steps — tardiness in adopting guidelines on having inmate beds aligned with faces facing feet, for example. But she said steps had been taken and some of the argument was over the effectiveness of the efforts.

As to the possibility of irreparable harm, another standard for an injunction, the judge was sympathetic.

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Plaintiffs’ alleged harm is both imminent and irreparable, as plaintiffs face a risk of severe illness or possible death in the light of COVID-19. Based on allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint, one of the named plaintiffs has already tested positive for COVID-19, along with hundreds more individuals in ADC facilities. Plaintiffs face the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic in a congregate environment. The irreparability of this harm is magnified by the fact that no known vaccine or cure for COVID-19 exists at this time. Accordingly, the Court finds the threat of irreparable harm to cut in plaintiffs’ favor.

Plaintiffs argued that it wouldn’t be hard for the state to meet their requests. The state said they’d create undue costs and operational burdens, plus create potential danger to others by release of criminals. The judge said both sides had strong arguments.

Public interest also cut both ways, the judge wrote.

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In plaintiffs’ favor, the public interest is served by protecting plaintiffs and the putative class members from COVID-19 and its possible consequences. Further, minimizing the spread of COVID-19 both within DOC facilities and among communities surrounding and interacting with those facilities serves the public interest. Efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 and promote public health appear to be in the public interest. In defendants’ favor, the public interest also commands respect for federalism and comity. These factors dictate that the Court should approach intrusion into the core activities of the state’s prison system with caution.

She decided not to intrude at this point.

A comment from Holly Dickson of the Arkansas ACLU:

“We knew this would be a difficult fight, but this fight is not over,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas interim executive director and legal director. “Arkansas state officials’ continued refusal to follow CDC guidelines is resulting in rampant outbreaks that threaten the lives of everyone who lives and works in these facilities, as well as their surrounding communities. We have continued to hear from more and more families that show why we must – and will – continue to fight to save lives and require state officials to protect the people in their custody.”

Here’s the judge’s ruling.

 

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