Ark. law making it difficult for local officials to keep staff, inmates safe from COVID-19

While Act 1002 allows DOC facilities to mandate masks, jails operated by local governments cannot


By Ronak Patel
Times Record

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Officials in Sebastian and Crawford County believe Act 1002, which bans local governments from mandating masks, has made it difficult for jails to keep detainees and staff safe from COVID-19.

According to the Arkansas Legislature's website, Act 1002 allows facilities operated by the Department of Corrections to issue masks, but since jails are operated by county governments, they can't.

Sen. Trent Garner, R- El Dorado, who was one of the sponsors of Act 1002, told the Times Record it was a "broad law" to stop "overreach" of county governments.

Hobe Runion, sheriff of Sebastian County, wishes he could still require his deputies to wear masks.

"I've required the deputies to wear a mask. When they're out of the admin area, if they are dealing with inmates, I can't even ask them that now. It's ridiculous. It's something that would keep them safe," Runion said.

Runion believes jails should be able to require masks if prisons are able to.

"Frankly it is a double set of standards. A prison, I think is much safer in the aspect that it is much easier to control. You don't have people going in and out as much, as the population is not as transient as a local jail," Runion said.

David Hudson, county judge of Sebastian County, expressed the same concerns as Runion. Hudson said the Legislature's decision to take away the governor's emergency powers has made it difficult to slow the spread of the virus at the county level.

As of July 29, the Sebastian County jail had four deputies test positive for COVID-19 and one detainee tested positive. As a precaution, all the detainees have been tested.

On July 28, about 50 to 60 out of the 398 detainees got the COVID-19 vaccine when it was offered to them.

However, with detainees moving in-and-out the jail, it is a challenge to keep track of who is vaccinated. All Care Pharmacy provided the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the facility. Since detainees move in and out the facility, the county decided to use Johnson & Johnson's one-shot vaccine.

Despite local governments being unable to require masks, Crawford County still requires mask in their jails.

"I have people coming in that are probably COVID positive that my employees are around, and this is the only way I can attempt to keep them safe. I feel like my employees are my responsibility and it's my job to keep them safe," Capt. Patti Stroud, the administrator of the Crawford County jail, said.

Stroud said the facility recently had one positive case. Detainees who were near the detainee, who tested positive, were all tested.

When the vaccine was first offered, about 50 inmates at the Crawford County jail received the vaccine.

Stroud said she doesn't know how many of those inmates are still in the facility because of how much they move. Like Sebastian County, Crawford County used the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The facility used its nurses and doctors to give the vaccine to detainees.

On Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that he will call a special session to address the rise in cases caused by the delta variant.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, who signed a letter earlier this week urging the governor to call a special session about repealing Act 1002 believes there is a chance the act will get repealed.

"That bill only passed of the Senate by two votes to begin with. We have a lot more information now than we did when we voted on that, because of the delta variant and the way cases are rising exponentially in Arkansas right now," Tucker said.
     
(c)2021 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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