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At least 670 inmates and 10 staff members of the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections have tested positive for COVID-19, Arkansas Secretary of Health Nate Smith said Tuesday.

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Arkansas reached 2,227, and deaths hit 43 Tuesday, the state’s fastest-growing pocket of the disease is in the Cummins Unit. Of the 304 new cases reported by the Arkansas Department of Health Tuesday, 262 came from the prison, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

The Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas, is a maximum security state prison with 555 employees and a maximum capacity of 1,725 inmates.

The numbers announced Tuesday reflected the number of cases reported to the ADH by 10 p.m. on Monday, Smith said at Hutchinson’s daily press briefing. State officials have finished testing all Cummins Unit inmates, but are still testing staff.

"It's the hardest environment to control an outbreak, but it's the easiest once you have that information," Smith said of the testing.

As of Tuesday night, 731 inmates and 25 staff members in the Arkansas state prison system have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. This means that 33.9% of the state’s confirmed cases are tied to ADC facilities.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, and several Arkansas law firms filed an emergency class-action lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of eleven inmates in the ADC system, including three at Cummins.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Arkansas, alleges that inadequate measures have been taken to curtail the spread of the virus and protect inmates in the state prison system.

The accompanying habeas corpus petition calls for “immediate relief against the substantial risk of COVID-19 infection, illness and death while incarcerated” in ADC facilities.

Hutchinson defended the ADC’s treatment of inmates at his press conference Tuesday, saying that inmates have greater access to testing than many non-incarcerated people in Arkansas.

"Dr. Smith and his team have provided more tests for the inmates at Cummins than are available to the general population," Hutchinson said. "We're trying to curtail it, we're trying to understand exactly where we stand in that prison environment."

Sarah Komar is a staff reporter for The Arkansas Traveler.

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