In-Person Visitation Resumes at Select Correctional Facilities

Modifications include scheduled appointments and physical barriers for social distancing.

Black and white photo of prison cells
Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

For the first time in nine months, the Arkansas Department of Corrections is allowing families to visit inmates at four of its facilities. Separation from friends and family is one of the hardest parts of being incarcerated and that gets even harder during the holidays, Secretary of Corrections Solomon Graves says.

“So we have to be cognizant of the fact that for many of our offenders the biggest challenge, the biggest burden of the pandemic is not the virus, it’s the separation from their family,” Sec. Graves says.

The Department of Corrections halted visitations Mar. 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the months that followed, phone calls and video visitation were still allowed and lower rates have been offered.

“The presence of COVID within a correctional facility is extremely dangerous,” Graves says. “It is a virus that spreads aggressively in congregate settings, so it’s important for our offenders to know that to some degree this is a risk, for their families to know that this is also a risk.”

Modified visitation procedures were rolled out Dec. 12 for the Benton Work Release Unit, Delta Regional Unit, Northeast Arkansas Community Correction Center and Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center. Under the new restrictions, in-person visits are limited to immediate, adult family members who must submit requests for visitation appointments. 

Additionally, visitors may not hug, kiss or touch inmates or residents. Vending machine and concession sales are prohibited, and visitors may not use the restroom except for an emergency. Masks must be worn during the entire visit and guests must remain at least six feet away or behind a designated barrier from the inmate or resident. 

About two dozen visits were scheduled during the first weekend in-person visits resumed and Sec. Graves says feedback has been positive from both offenders and families. However, one complaint he’s received is that minors aren’t allowed to participate in the program. It was a challenging line for the department to draw, he says.

Secretary of Corrections Solomon Graves headshot
Secretary of Corrections Solomon Graves

“The hallmark of proper social distancing is being able to have an individual who understands you’re in this 6-foot box, I need you to stay within this 6-foot box,” Graves says. “I’ve got a 3-year-old, there’s no way I can tell my 3-year-old to stay within a 6-foot box. And understanding that many families have children in multiple age ranges, it’s not fair to say your 13-year-old can come but your 3-year-old can’t.” 

When choosing where to pilot the new program, Sec. Graves says officials looked at COVID-19 case counts and staffing levels, as well as which facilities have fairly robust visitation programs in order to obtain good data on whether or not the pilot program is working.

There are 19 prisons and six community correction centers within the state system. Prior to the pandemic, larger facilities could see as many as 300 visitors on a single weekend.

“At some of our smaller community correction centers, some of our smaller work release centers, they may only have 15 to 20, so it fluctuates greatly between the size of our facilities,” Graves says. “We have facilities as small as 115 to as large as just shy of 2,000.”

Given that Arkansas has set records for COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in December, it may seem like a strange time to resume in-person visitation. However, Graves explains conversations about reopening began in September. The original plan was to restart in-person visits in October, but he says that was pushed to December as officials worked to ensure the safest way to allow the public back into facilities.

DOC officials will work with medical vendor Wellpath and the Arkansas Department of Health to identify if any additional cases are tied to the rollout of in-person visitation. Graves and his staff are keeping an eye on how the pandemic is affecting the state as a whole and will adjust accordingly. 

“Hospital capacity is a challenge for the state right now so what we don’t want to do is create something that while today it makes sense, two, three weeks from now we may be creating a surge within our system that makes an already challenging hospitalization environment within the state even more challenging,” Graves says. 

The Department of Corrections has spent more than $2 million dollars in its COVID-19 response, Graves says. A big part of its response has been what Graves calls “one of the most aggressive testing protocols within the country.” DOC completed a mass testing initiative in August in which all inmates and residents housed in its facilities were tested. 

Earlier this month, Graves announced DOC was receiving a second allotment of 43,000 antigen tests from ADH to continue efforts to regularly test staff. All facilities have a rolling schedule to ensure staff members are tested at least once a week with a rapid antigen test.

“It’s been an extremely effective surveillance tool for the department, which is what it was designed to be,” Graves says. “It’s designed to allow us to get out in front of issues and also allowing us to rapidly respond to issues before they become a full-fledged outbreak.”

About 100,000 PCR and antigen tests have been administered within the Department of Corrections, Graves says. The Arkansas Department of Health has processed more than 54,300 total tests from inmates, residents and staff, according to numbers released Dec. 22. 

Of those, 9,575 inmates and residents have tested positive and recovered. Another 628 have tested positive, but have not yet recovered. Among DOC staff, 139 have tested positive, but are not yet classified as recovered.

“If you look at our facilities as a community, my average daily population between offenders and staff is about 20,000. So based on rapid tests and PCR tests, on average I’ve tested every individual within the department, staff and offender, three and a half times since the beginning of this pandemic,” Graves says. “There’s not a community in this state that can say they’ve done that and our aggressive testing is reflective of our commitment to maintain the safety of our offenders and our staff.”

Based on current ADH plans, Sec. Graves expects DOC staff to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines in late January through February. The vaccine is then expected to be administered to inmates and residents in late February through March. 

In the meantime, DOC officials are monitoring the modified in-person visitation program and will evaluate if it can be expanded beyond the first four facilities where it was rolled out this month.  

“We were very clear on the front end of this pandemic that every decision we make is going to be informed by the individuals with MD behind their name,” Graves says. “When they tell us to go, we’re going to go. When they tell us to stop, we’re going to stop.” 

More information about new restrictions on in-person visitation can be found here. The visitation appointment request form can be submitted here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.