CUMMINS UNIT (file photo) Brian Chilson

This story was produced in partnership with The Nation.

On Friday, April 10, Dashujauhn “Heavy” Danzie heard that his fellow prisoner had finally gotten out of bed. During the previous week, everyone in the 9B barracks had watched nervously as the bedridden man kept coughing. Other prisoners told Heavy that the man had stood up and walked — or at least tried to. He collapsed on the way to the library and was taken to the infirmary.

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Heavy had been a prisoner at Cummins Unit, one Arkansas’s largest prisons, since 2017. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1995, and has shuffled around a few facilities since. He’d seen sickness in the barracks before — that was simply life in prison. But this time, he said, he was terrified. He’d heard there was no cure for COVID-19.

On a normal weekend the 51-year-old would wake up at 10 a.m., eat breakfast and then watch TV or a movie. If he could haggle to get the remote, he’d turn on NASCAR or pick among “Scarface,” “Baby Driver,” or “The Dukes of Hazzard.” That Saturday, Heavy rose instead to discover that the guards had not unlocked the door to 9B, an open dorm that consists of a day room, a bathroom and a sleeping area with around 50 tightly packed beds. He said he knew something “crazy” was about to happen when guards brought shrink-wrapped meals on Styrofoam trays rather than letting them eat in the chow hall.

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Around 7 p.m., guards escorted Heavy and the rest of 9B to the day room. A nurse used a nasal swab to test Heavy for COVID-19, which sunk him into what he called an “immediate depression.”

“I felt like, damn, if I come down with this, in this place, I’m doomed,” he said.

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The next morning Warden Aundrea Culclager and several guards came to the door of Heavy’s barracks. The prisoners whose names she read off her phone were told to gather their stuff and leave. She called a few more names, then a few more. Heavy said he felt anxious and confused.

“We had no idea if these were guys who were positive or negative,” he said. “They wouldn’t tell us. They just said they were moving them out. They wouldn’t even tell us where they were moving them to.”

But a few hours later, when the room was down to Heavy and about a dozen other prisoners, the guards started to bring everyone back. The prisoners who returned gave Heavy the rundown. “The whole barracks was positive,” Heavy said. “They had more positive cases than they had room to house.” Forty-four of the 47 men were infected.

By April 28, 860 prisoners at Cummins Unit, almost half the population, had tested positive for COVID-19. By early June, at least 10 had died of the disease and 29 had been hospitalized. The prison had become the 10th-largest known cluster of infections in the country, according to The New York Times.

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Through phone interviews and letters sent in March, April and May, a dozen prisoners at Cummins gave firsthand accounts of the outbreak. (Most asked that their real names not be published out of fear of being punished; unless otherwise noted, prisoners’ names are pseudonyms.) They described a slow response from Arkansas Department of Corrections officials, even as guards and prisoners were falling ill in early April. The ADC did not widely test prisoners for the virus until the middle of April and forced them to work in crowded conditions. Once the extent of the outbreak was acknowledged, prisoners say, officials locked sick inmates inside their barracks for weeks with inadequate food and scant medical attention.

As early as March 18, activists had called on Governor Hutchinson and the state Parole Board to begin releasing prisoners. For over a month, Hutchinson resisted. It was not until April 20, with the outbreak raging at Cummins, that he finally directed the state Board of Corrections and the Parole Board to begin a review of prisoners to be considered for early release — but even then, the list was limited to those with nonviolent and nonsexual convictions who were already approaching their release dates. Two days later, the ACLU of Arkansas and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Cummins and other facilities who said their medical histories put them especially at risk of the virus. The plaintiffs sued to compel state officials to release elderly and vulnerable prisoners and take more steps to control the outbreak.

As of early June, only 19 prisoners at Cummins have been released. Most have remained quartered in their barracks, allowed outside for only three or four hours a week. Heavy had been on lockdown for more than 60 days. “They really dropped the ball when it came to COVID-19, because the only way we could’ve gotten it is from someone outside bringing it in,” Heavy said. “They didn’t take precautions early on. That’s failure to protect.”

EARLY FEARS

Cummins Unit sits near the Arkansas River in the southeastern part of the state, on nearly 18,000 acres of farmland. Ever since it was established in 1902 on a former cotton plantation, it’s been criticized for its brutal and often deadly conditions. In 1971, based on a lawsuit filed by Arkansas prisoners, a federal judge found the state’s entire prison system to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Arkansas’s prisons remained under court oversight until 1982. But like in many of the state’s prisons, the ADC continued to cram prisoners into Cummins. The prison was built to house a maximum of 1,876 men. Today, it holds about 1,950.

In the open barracks at Cummins Unit, beds are about three feet apart. “I’m 5 feet 9 inches, one prisoner said. “If I was to lay on my bed and extend my arms while lying on my back, I can touch the next bed.” In the chow hall, three to four barracks’ worth of men are fed at a time. “We’re always rubbing elbows in line,” another prisoner said. They eat four to a table, with little room between seats.

Brian Chilson

In early March, some prisoners learned about COVID-19 from friends and family; others heard about it from TV news. But prisoners say officials never formally told them about the pandemic. Instead, the ADC simply posted signs, beginning on March 11, that instructed prisoners to wash their hands with soap and hot water for a full 20 seconds.

News broadcasts advised social distancing, but that wasn’t possible for prisoners. Kaleem Nazeem, an activist with the Arkansas prison reform nonprofit DecARcerate, saw the potential for disaster. “I’m very concerned,” Nazeem, who did time at Cummins in the late 2000s, said in an interview in mid-March. “It’s one thing to be out here in the world where you can isolate yourself and, as they say, practice social distancing. But it’s another thing when you’re incarcerated, and you don’t really have a choice of who you’re around.”

Initially, the ADC sought to prevent an outbreak by limiting who could enter the facility. It also began to subject guards to a temperature check when they reported to work. Anyone with a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit would be sent home. On March 16, officials announced that they were suspending visitation, including prisoners’ meetings with their attorneys, for 21 days. To make up for this, the ADC reduced the price of phone calls from 20 cents per minute to 15. But this cost was still prohibitive for many prisoners and their families, especially during a pandemic. “I think they should suspend the amount,” Nazeem said in March. “It’s very important to have family members to contact. Your family can save your life.”

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While guards could go home sick, prisoners had to keep working. Cummins, like many other prisons in Arkansas and across the South, relies on the labor of unpaid prisoners to function. Prisoners act as “essential workers”: They clean the barracks and the chow hall, sew and launder their clothes and bedsheets, staff the library and cook the food. An individual prisoner may interact with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people throughout a shift.

Because Cummins is also a working farm, prisoners harvest corn and soybeans and slaughter pigs, cows and chickens. Each morning at 6, hundreds of prisoners assigned to “hoe squad,” the term for field work, are called to present themselves at the prison’s entrance, told to “deuce up” (meaning stand two-by-two in a line), and board a narrow trailer. They’re taken to the fields, where guards watch them from horseback. It’s a job that prisoners despise. “You wanna see some real-life slave stuff going on? Look at them guys on hoe squad,” said Thaddeus Williams, who was incarcerated at Cummins in the early 2000s. “You in these fields, and all you doing is beating on the earth. You might go four, five miles just doing that.”

Throughout March, hoe squad was assigned to swing-blade the grass in muddy ditches around a chicken plant reeking of ammonia. Prisoners worked shoulder to shoulder without masks, and some started to question whether they should be working at all. On March 26, Gregory Martin, a prisoner who gave permission for his real name to be used, wrote a grievance asking for hoe squad to stop. “There’s a global pandemic that’s air-born[e], that’s killing thousands of people,” he wrote. “My family isn’t allowed to come see me for the same reason that everything in the country is shut down for. I’m being forced to go out into the field, thus putting my life in danger.”

But officials seemed keen on keeping prisoners at work. Martin said guards laughed him off; his grievance was returned to him with the cover sheet still on top.

On March 27, officials told prisoners assigned to the garment factory that during the weekend they could volunteer to manufacture masks that would be distributed throughout the state’s prison system. But one prisoner was forced to keep sewing in early April despite having symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including sweating to the point that “his clothes were completely saturated,” according to a declaration submitted by his mother as part of the ACLU lawsuit. The prison workers made masks out of the same material as their clothes and bedsheets, which were very thin. Prisoners said they seemed to offer little protection against COVID-19. But when they tried to make thicker masks for themselves, according to multiple prisoners, guards threatened to write them up for contraband and send them to solitary.

FIRST POSITIVE TEST

On April 1, the first ADC staff member at Cummins, a farmworker, tested positive for the virus. Despite the result, the ADC did not begin mass testing prisoners, said Cindy Murphy, an ADC spokesperson, because the state health department had determined that the farmworker had not been in contact with prisoners. Nor did the ADC track which or how many of its employees had tested positive. Murphy said the department has records of 17 employees who tested positive in early April, but “we can’t give you a precise number because some employees used other providers for tests.”

Prisoners and guards alike soon began to fall sick. One prisoner, Cameron, recalled that on April 10 he went to the infirmary with a severe headache and other symptoms he feared were signs of COVID-19. “I informed them that I had a real bad case of diarrhea — that I couldn’t smell, I couldn’t taste,” he said in an April 25 interview. “They gave me two Tylenol and shipped me back to the barracks.”

Cameron did not receive a test for COVID-19. In fact, up until April 11, only one prisoner at Cummins was tested for COVID-19, and the test came back negative. But prisoners were still required to go to work as the outbreak spread. Hoe squad continued, Martin recalled, until illness forced it to a halt on April 10. “The last actual day, our hoe squad supervisor, she jumped off of her horse because she wasn’t feeling good,” Martin said. “She threw up, and lieutenants all came down off horses and surrounded her.” (An ADC spokesperson said the department is not aware of this incident.)

Brian Chilson
CUMMINS: Sits on 18,000 acres of farmland worked by unpaid prisoners.

That Sunday, April 12, was the day that Heavy and most of the rest of 9B barracks tested positive for the coronavirus. Around 8:30 that night, a violent rainstorm knocked out the unit’s power. Without air conditioning, Heavy’s newly quarantined barracks started to grow hot.

John Ponder, a 39-year-old prisoner who allowed his real name be used, said the backup generator failed in his barracks. “We had no lights and no ventilation,” he said. By midnight, dinner still hadn’t been served in many parts of the prison and “pill call,” when medication is distributed, had been delayed. Prisoners in multiple barracks broke their windows in protest. At 2:30 a.m., guards wearing face masks served food.

Monday morning, there was still no power at the unit, and breakfast was meager: a thin pancake, a flat sausage patty and three slices of pear. When the power finally returned at 8 p.m., Ponder’s barracks turned on the TV as they waited for dinner. On the news, they saw that Governor Hutchinson had announced the positive test results to the public: COVID-19 was officially at Cummins.

During Hutchinson’s press conference, a reporter asked the governor to address growing calls to release prisoners, as had been done in California and New York. Hutchinson, who previously worked as a tough-on-crime U.S. attorney, pushed back. “There’s a reason these inmates are in a maximum-security unit,” he said. “I don’t see that happening. If it spreads more broadly, there are potential plans we could look at.”

Hutchinson also dismissed calls for broader testing at Cummins. The governor simply said he was hopeful the outbreak was “contained.”

Inside Cummins, officials implemented a series of measures meant to slow the spread of the virus. The same day as the governor’s announcement, they tested a random sample of inmates in other barracks, and discovered that the virus had spread throughout the prison. Guards separated out the prisoners who had tested positive and placed all barracks on “lockdown.”

Heavy said the guards wouldn’t even go inside the 9B barracks. Staff served meals through a slot in the door and treated prisoners like “lepers,” he said.

As the days passed, many of the younger men locked inside began to argue with each other while older prisoners tried to keep the peace. “It’s hard because we got all these different personalities and tempers flying around,” Heavy explained.

It didn’t help that food service began to deteriorate, he added. Some prisoners said they had to buy food from the commissary to make up for the lack of meals. “Right now, we’ve got guys at Cummins missing meals and going a very long time between the meals, because they’ve relied so heavily on inmates to work the kitchen,” said Cristy Park, a lawyer with Disability Rights Arkansas, which is litigating the case against the ADC alongside the ACLU. “This crisis has shown us how vulnerable it makes [the ADC] to rely so much on inmate labor.”

Under normal circumstances, prisoners risk being written up and sent to solitary confinement if they don’t go to work. From January 2019 to May 2020, Cummins Unit guards wrote 378 disciplinary reports for “out of place of job assignment” that resulted in a prisoner being punished with solitary confinement, according to data obtained by the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and The Nation. Another 192 disciplinary reports were written for unexcused absences. Anti-prison advocates have criticized the use of solitary as fortifying a system of slave labor, noting that prisoners in Arkansas are disproportionately black. “They use it as a weapon,” said a former guard who worked at Cummins Unit in 2018 and requested anonymity because her husband is incarcerated at the prison.

When the outbreak exploded, some jobs, such as hoe squad, simply stopped while others were still expected to perform their duties.

Even though he tested positive, Heavy said he’s had to keep working. He’s a picket man, meaning he sorts and folds laundry. “I been working throughout the quarantine, I pretty much don’t have a choice,” he said. “If I don’t work, they’ll turn around and write a disciplinary.”

TWO WEEKS LATER

Shortly before his barracks was tested on April 15, a prisoner named Kyle said a guard came in looking unwell. “We could look at her and tell that she was sick,” he said. “She was all around the barracks, coughing, making rounds.”

That same day, the ADC decided that staff members who had tested positive but were asymptomatic could return to work at the facilities where “critical activities cannot occur without the use of these workers.” When questioned later about this policy, the ADC said that positive but asymptomatic guards were assigned to barracks that had tested positive.

By Sunday, April 19, almost 350 prisoners at Cummins had tested positive, according to records from the Arkansas Department of Health. Ponder, who has high blood pressure, had not received his medication in a week and worried that he might have had a mild stroke as a result, according to his wife’s declaration in the ACLU lawsuit. “The right side of his body and face is affected,” she said. He also tested positive for COVID-19.

Nearly all prisoners were forbidden to leave their barracks, not even to go to the recreation yard. “The most important thing they can do right now is give us some sunlight,” a 62-year-old prisoner named Michael said after he tested positive. “We are getting no fresh air. Everybody in here sick, everybody coughing on each other. It’s one big germ.” He said he was walking laps around his barracks to feel better and wait the quarantine out.

On April 20, Hutchinson finally directed the Board of Corrections to review around 1,200 inmates for possible release. The move fell far short of the mass humanitarian gesture that activists had called for: As of June 9, the ADC had released 19 prisoners at Cummins out of the 44 that had been approved. Across the state’s entire prison system, it has let out only 648 prisoners out of more 18,000 incarcerated individuals. ADC spokesperson Murphy said the Parole Board is continuing the review process.

Brian Chilson

“Reducing the population is the No. 1 thing,” said Josiah Rich, an epidemiologist at the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. “Anybody who knows anything about corrections knows that if you don’t have some empty wards, you can’t social distance anybody, and you’re hosed. They missed the boat on that one, and that’s why they got such an epidemic.”

As the end of April approached, the ADC seemed eager to wrap up testing. At a press conference on April 22, Health Secretary Nathaniel Smith declared testing finished at Cummins Unit. But the next day, the ADC and the Arkansas Department of Health ordered new tests. A prisoner had tested positive in the South Hall, where prison officials had thought the virus had not previously spread.

More prisoners began to require hospitalization. Officials set up a 20-bed field hospital in the visitation room that could provide oxygen therapy, but because it didn’t have ventilators or other equipment, an increasing number of men were hospitalized outside of Cummins. In an April 21 email, Department of Corrections Director Dexter Payne told the state’s prison wardens to ensure that officers transporting inmates to hospitals were wearing masks. “Hospitals are not wanting to treat our inmates because our staff are not following the guidelines that we are sending out,” he wrote.

By April 29, ADC records show that there were five prisoners from Cummins at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and six at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff. Three were on ventilators. The ADC had finished testing nearly every prisoner at Cummins Unit; the virus had found its way to every part of the prison.

But that fact didn’t seem to have sunk in for ADC officials. On April 30, Department of Correction Secretary Wendy Kelly wrote an email to the wardens, asking them to “please have the inmates/residents sleep with their heads of every other bed on one end, and every alternate bed on the other.”

John Craig, a warden at the Benton Unit, responded that same day, “I put that in place several weeks ago as a precautionary measure!”

A MONTH LATER

The first Cummins prisoners died in early May. On Friday, May 1, a 61-year-old prisoner died at Jefferson Regional. He was followed Saturday morning by a second prisoner, a 65-year-old, who also died there.

On Saturday, Heavy said he’d heard that a guard had delivered bologna sandwiches to one of the barracks in the East Hall. “The guys were like, ‘What do you mean, this is our dinner?’” Heavy said. The Cummins employee is rumored to have retorted that they should be happy to be fed at all. In response, prisoners lit a trash can on fire and broke two windows. Guards deployed tear gas and hog-tied the prisoners in the barracks that started the disturbance.

The tear gas seeped into Heavy’s barracks. During the unrest, as men in 9B were washing their faces with wet cloth or milk, he said a fellow prisoner opened the door to ask a guard to turn on a fan to clear the fumes. A guard shot him in the face with a rubber bullet, and he crumpled in the hallway. Fellow prisoners dragged him back into the unit, but, according to Heavy, hours passed before guards took him to the infirmary. “They left him in a puddle of his own blood,” he said. (The ADC says any inmates “affected” in the “disturbance” were evaluated in compliance with protocol.)

That same night, guards wheeled a 29-year-old prisoner named Derick Coley to the infirmary. Ciara, a relative of Coley’s who requested a pseudonym because she’s on probation, received a call from one of Coley’s best friends, who is also incarcerated at Cummins. Ciara said the friend told her he had seen the guards moving Coley, whose lips looked pale and who could barely hold his head up. “He said he thinks Derick died, that somebody said Derick died, to please call and find out,” Ciara said. She could hear how scared Coley’s friend was. “He was so messed up; he was so upset.”

At 1:30 a.m., the prison called Coley’s mother: Derick was dead. Coley’s family was devastated. Coley had just been discharged from the hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, which Ciara said seemed like a good sign. Every time the family called about him, prison officials would “just keep telling us he’s better, he’s getting better, that’s all they would say,” she said. He had been up for parole in June, and they had hoped he might be sent home. The coroner’s report doesn’t list a cause of death, and the ADC has opened a criminal investigation.

In the early hours of Sunday, May 3, two more prisoners died of COVID-19. Three more would die over the course of the next week. The number of positive cases continued to climb into mid-May and reached over 950 by May 19. Officially, 10 prisoners at Cummins have died of COVID-19 to date.

TWO MONTHS LATER

In late May, prison officials started to serve regular meals in the chow hall and give the men in Heavy’s barracks an hour in the recreation yard once every other day. When they let him out, it was the first time Heavy had been outside in weeks.

By June 15, the ADC said there were only four active cases inside the prison. But Danyelle McNeill, a spokesperson for the health department, said that no prisoners are being retested.

COVID-19 outbreaks have erupted at two other prisons run by the ADC. As of June 15, 286 prisoners at the Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility in Pine Bluff had tested positive for the virus (most have since been declared recovered). The state’s newest hotspot is the East Arkansas Regional Unit in Brickeys (Lee County), which has 475 active cases. And a federal prison in Forrest City has seen at least nearly 700 infections among prisoners and staff.

The mass release advocates have sued for isn’t likely to happen any time soon. On May 19, the judge in the ACLU lawsuit denied the request for a preliminary injunction, ruling that the ADC ultimately adopted many of the policies sought by plaintiffs. A trial has been set for April 2021. On June 3, U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Deere combined more than 100 lawsuits filed by prisoners at Cummins Unit into a single federal class-action suit.

Many prisoners remain furious that ADC officials told them little or nothing about what was going on throughout the crisis. Several men said that no one, not a counselor or a religious adviser, has come to offer comfort. “Almost everybody in the barrack got COVID-19, but not once has a mental health counselor been down here to talk to us, soothe us, tell us it’s gonna be OK,” Kyle said. “This is stressful because, honestly, we don’t know whether we gonna live or die. This is a mental health issue.” Ponder wrote in a letter in late May that guards “will no longer tell us how many men here have died from Covid.”

While the worst of the crisis seems to have lifted, prisoners say Cummins Unit has a long way to go until normalcy is restored. “This crisis could have been prevented,” Ponder wrote. “But now it is too late.”

This reporting is courtesy of The Nation and the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.