Covid-19 omicron surge impacts western Arkansas prisons

FORT SMITH — Sheriffs in western Arkansas recently reported having trouble in their jails following the rise of the omicron variant of covid-19 in the state.

Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion estimated that about 35-40% of staff at Fort Smith Jail were absent due to the virus as of Tuesday afternoon. This included custodial assistants and civilian staff, as well as catering and medical staff employed by companies under contract with the sheriff’s office to provide these services.

This does not include sheriff’s office staff who work outside the jail and were absent that day.

Runion said the sheriff’s office uses its patrol and court divisions to help run the jail. The department will pay these employees overtime to do so in hopes that the omicron surge will peak “rather quickly.”

“At the same time, if it gets to that point where you can’t effectively cover prison staff, that’s when I have to say, ‘If you’re not sick, I need you to put a mask and you come to work,” Runion said. “I want to emphasize that we’re not there yet, but obviously that’s a discussion we’ve had.”

Reunion was unable to provide a number of detainees infected with covid-19 on Tuesday. If an inmate was infected or exposed to the virus, they would be quarantined in their current cell as the prison had no empty cells or capsules. The 356-bed facility has always been overcrowded.

Crawford County Sheriff Jimmy Damante also said Tuesday that staff at Van Buren Jail had been reduced to a “skeleton crew” due to covid-19. He’s also used patrol deputies to help fill vacancies, though he said that hasn’t created a problem for the sheriff’s office yet.

“I have 10, 12 or 14 employees in total across the department who have tested positive,” Damante said Tuesday. “Now some of them will come back because they tested positive several days ago and their quarantine period is over, so I’m going to get most of those back, I think, a day or two. this week.”

Damante said the prison had 84 staff.

However, a test carried out the previous week revealed that 115 of the prison’s 288 inmates tested positive for covid-19, according to Damante. He went on to say that each pod in the facility has at least two people infected with the virus.

Damante said it was very difficult to separate inmates who tested positive from those who did not.

“The new intakes go to a certain group to try to separate them for the first couple of days to make sure they don’t get infected before putting them in with others,” Damante said. “It’s a kind of chess game that moves people around, trying to keep control over it as tightly as possible.”

Arkansas announced its first confirmed infection caused by the omicron variant on December 17.

In western Arkansas, a 30-day mask mandate was enacted for the Fort Smith School District on January 10 in response to the continued rise in covid-19 cases in the state, particularly the omicron variant. The University of Arkansas-Fort Smith also elected to move its instruction and operations from in-person to remote delivery for the same reason on January 14, although it will return to in-person delivery on Monday.

The Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office is following current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and trying to minimize all inmate movement at the jail to reduce the risk of infection, Runion said. Runion also implemented a mask mandate for sheriff’s office staff working in a closed area on Tuesday.

Runion said it sent an email on Tuesday to prosecutors, police departments and judges, as well as its own staff, explaining the situation with the prison and suggesting that they employ alternatives to sending certain offenders in the building.

“Obviously some people just have to go to jail and it will continue, but basically what we said if there’s a way to handle this in a different way, let’s do it,” Runion said. “If it’s an offense that we can write a citation for, let’s do it, but obviously we have to be open.”

However, Runion said he did not list specific offenses in his suggestion, leaving that to the discretion of individual agencies. The Fort Smith Police Department is the jail’s biggest customer, according to Runion.

Damante said that in addition to separating inmates, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office also has a mask mandate for staff at its 307-bed jail. He also disinfects the facility twice a week, with inmates cleaning the pods as well.

The sheriff’s office did all of this long before mid-December, according to Damante.

“We continue as we have done in the past,” Damante said. “The sheriff’s office and all law enforcement never closes like every other business. That’s probably our biggest problem. We can’t close. We can’t shut down. We can’t fire everything. the world at home and say, ‘Take off today.'”

Logan County Sheriff Jason Massey said on Tuesday that the ramping up of the omicron variant hasn’t had much overall impact on the 100-bed county jail in Paris outside of staff who have been tested. positive for covid-19, which he said was not much.

An employee walks near the entrance to the Sebastian County Detention Center Friday in Fort Smith. Due to Covid-19 staff absences, the sheriff’s office this week used its patrol and court divisions to help run the jail. Go to for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

Cases of Covid-19 in Arkansas

The number of covid-19 cases in the state rose by 14,494 from Tuesday to Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 702,483 at that time. The number of active cases in Arkansas increased by 6,440 to a total of 95,378 and the total number of covid-19 deaths increased by 10 to 9,462 during the same period.

Source: Arkansas Department of Health

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