Jul 21, 2022 - News

Inmate overdose data for Arkansas is fuzzy

Illustration of red crosses on an eye test chart.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Arkansas state prisons had the highest average annual rate of both drug- and alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. for nearly two decades.

Yes, but: While the rate was high, the raw number of inmate deaths in Arkansas for the period was 976, with 52 of those being overdoses. California had the highest raw number of inmate overdose deaths in the U.S. during that time — 402.

What happened: When asked about current rates of inmate mortality from drug and alcohol use, the ADC first replied: "The department is not the custodian of death records that include cause of death."

  • After Axios shared the Bureau of Justice Statistics data with the ADC, the department said that five Arkansas inmates had died of overdoses between the beginning of 2020 and April 2022.

Why it matters: There were at least 387 drug overdoses statewide in 2020, according to the Arkansas State Crime Lab.

  • At least 148 of those, 38%, were linked to fentanyl.
  • It's unclear whether the deadly synthetic opioid has infiltrated the state prison system. The ADC did not answer any of Axios' questions that sought to understand if the drug has been found or if there's a usage problem in state prisons.

By the numbers: ADC has changed how and what parts of drug-related contraband information is presented in its annual reports, making historical comparisons difficult.

  • Inmates charged and found guilty of drug or alcohol use were at a five-year high in fiscal 2019, with 1,674 incidents.
  • In fiscal year 2021, the number was down to 626, which may be in part tied to lower incarcerations during the pandemic.

What they're saying: "We've taken steps to prevent drugs from entering our facilities, such as banning inmates from receiving original pieces of mail, which can be laced with synthetic drugs, such as K2," ADOC's Cindy Murphy wrote in an email to Axios.

  • She added that as of 2019, it's a felony to engage in criminal activity inside an Arkansas state prison, and scanners have been upgraded to prevent visitors and employees from entering units with drugs or other contraband.

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