The Investigators: Inmates fear for their safety inside Arkansas prison with COVID-19 outbreak

Outbreak behind bars at Forrest City Federal Correctional Complex

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - More than 20 inmates and staff members at a federal prison in Arkansas have tested positive for COVID-19 and many more are exhibiting with symptoms, according to federal and state officials.

According to the Arkansas Health Department Secretary, the Centers for Disease Control will arrive in Arkansas Tuesday evening to help contain an outbreak at the Forrest City Federal Correctional Complex.

Since late March, phone calls and emails have streamed into the WMC Action News 5 newsroom from inmates and family members of those inside the prison.

Though the prison houses inmates in both low and medium-security facilities, some prisoners have told The Investigators they feel like they’re now serving death sentences.

“We’re all sitting in this building like fish in a barrel waiting to catch a virus that is deadly to some,” said one inmate who did not want to be publicly identified. “We’ve been having symptoms and a lot of us have been sick in here. They put us right back in the unit and said that we didn’t have a fever that we was OK.”

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The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to that accusation.

In his press conference Tuesday, the Investigators asked Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson about the Forrest City prison.

State Health Department Secretary Dr. Nate Smith answered saying, the CDC would arrive in Arkansas Tuesday evening and then head to the prison on Wednesday morning.

“So to assist the prison in their containment efforts and to also help us assure that an outbreak there doesn’t spill over into the surrounding community,” said Dr. Smith.

The BOP wrote in an email that staff members are now being screened for COVID-19 symptoms in tents before they enter the facility.

Inmates said they have each received one face mask but they don’t believe it’s enough protection.

“Some people aren’t taking it as seriously as they should,” said another prisoner who did not want to be publicly identified. “Some people aren’t wearing their masks. You have to tell people ‘hey, stay away from me’ or whatnot.”

Yet another inmate told us over the phone that while visitors aren’t allowed into the prison, there is no way to social distance from other prisoners.

“While the rest of the world is hunkering down and sheltering in place, everyone in this facility has been around to intermingle,” he said.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is working to get elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing conditions out of prison on Compassionate Release.

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“We’re not allowing social distancing in our prisons,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “There’s bad hygiene there, none of the precautions we’re taking on the outside they can take in there so we need to thin out the prison population.”

On April 3, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons directing the agency to send more prisoners to home confinement, who are both safe to release and vulnerable to COVID-19.

The BOP said as of April 6, 566 inmates have been released to home confinement so far but the agency couldn’t tell us how many were from Forrest City.

The Investigators reached out to the BOP Tuesday and asked about the inmates’ allegations. We also asked what further measures were being taken to protect inmates and staff. We did not hear back.

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