The Marshall Project, devoted to criminal justice, focused on the mass coronavirus outbreak at Cummins prison.

It’s a little behind the times on count — up to 826 inmates and 33 staff members yesterday afternoon, with more expected as more testing is completed. A recent roundup of nationwide hot spots puts the Cummins outbreak in the top five in the number of cases. Lincoln County, a rural county with scant population except for the prison,  records by far the highest number of cases per capita by a New York Times assessment.


What’s behind the surge in cases at Cummins?

The state’s newly aggressive testing program. Rather than waiting to test for COVID-19 until people are obviously ill—or not testing at all—the state says it hopes to reduce the virus’s spread by tracking all cases, even for prisoners or staff who are asymptomatic.

“Nobody knows exactly how it acts,” spokeswoman Dina Tyler said of the virus. “It seems to bounce around more than a pinball.”

Only a handful of states have taken this expansive testing approach so far—but it seems responsible for a spike in reported coronavirus cases behind bars. Still, many prisons across the nation are only testing people who are evidently sick, not reporting any testing results for guards and other staff, or not testing at all, The Marshall Project has found. That could be a problem, health experts say, since undetected cases in prisons could contribute to community spread outside.

Arkansas has only taken this approach at Cummins. It has only performed 10 tests on symptomatic people at seven other prison units. It has done more testing at the Little Rock Community Corrections Center, where an outbreak has claimed dozens of inmates and staff.


The Marshall Project article notes that many states have begun broader testing in the high-risk prison settings of asymptomatic people.