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Judge rejects Arkansas inmates’ bid for more virus steps

May 19, 2020 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday rejected an effort to require Arkansas to release inmates at high risk of contracting the coronavirus and to take other steps to curb the virus’s spread in its prisons.

Health officials said at least 4,923 people in the state have tested positive for coronavirus, an increase over the 4,813 reported Monday. The true number is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

The number of people who have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose to 102.

INMATES’ MOTION REJECTED

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker denied the motion for preliminary injunction filed by a group of inmates who said the state hasn’t done enough to prevent the virus’ spread. The lawsuit was filed in response to an outbreak at one prison, the Cummins Unit, where 951 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus and eight have died from the illness caused by the virus.

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Health officials say 231 inmates at a second prison, the Randall Williams Unit, have also tested positive for the virus.

“The court is mindful of the numbers of inmates and staff diagnosed with COVID-19 and that those numbers have increased during the few weeks this case has been pending,” Baker wrote in her 73-page ruling “On this record, at this stage of the litigation, the court cannot conclude that such an outbreak necessarily arises from deficiencies sufficient to establish plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims.”

The lawsuit sought the release of elderly or disabled inmates at high risk of contracting the coronavirus or for them to be transferred to home confinement. Baker said federal law prevents her from ordering such releases before the inmates have exhausted administrative remedies.

Attorneys for the inmates did not say whether they planned to appeal the decision.

“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,” Holly Dickson, legal director and interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represented the inmates.

Baker noted that as of May 7 the state had released 300 inmates early as a precaution during the pandemic. She also said the prison system has taken steps to address the virus similar to those sought by the inmates.

“The decision emphasizes the extensive efforts (the Department of Corrections) has taken to protect inmates and staff, and it allows Arkansas’s officials to continue focusing on protecting all Arkansans from the pandemic,” Amanda Priest, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said.

NURSING HOME TESTS

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state planned to test every resident and staffer at a nursing home facility for coronavirus starting June 1. Hutchinson said the move would result in between 40,000 and 50,000 additional tests for the virus in the state.

“This additional testing will better protect our nursing home residents, it will protect our staff, it will give confidence to our staff and residents that we’re doing everything we can to make sure there is no spread and contagion in these facilities,” he said.

The White House last week strongly recommended to governors that all nursing home residents and staff be tested for the virus.

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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