The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit against the Washington County Detention Center in Arkansas on behalf of inmates who say the jail’s medical staff, led by Dr. Robert Karas, prescribed and gave them ivermectin to treat COVID-19 without telling them what the drug actually was. (Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug that the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Pharmacists Association, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, and others have repeatedly stated should not be used as a treatment for COVID-19.) As Edrick Floreal-Wooten, one of the inmates at Washington County Detention Center and a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, recently told CBS News, “They said they were vitamins, steroids and antibiotics. We were running fevers, throwing up, diarrhea … and so we figured that they were here to help us. … We never knew that they were running experiments on us, giving us ivermectin. We never knew that.”
In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, speaks about these revelations and the impending federal lawsuit with Gary Sullivan, legal director for the ACLU of Arkansas, and Zachary Crow, director of decARcerate, a grassroots coalition working to end mass incarceration in Arkansas with and on behalf of prisoners and their families.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Charles Hopkins: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. It’s been recently reported that men detained in Washington County Detention Center in Arkansas were given an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin without their consent.
Eva Madison: Thank you, Mr. Chair. I learned today that Dr. Karas is giving ivermectin, cow dewormer, to inmates at the jail. He is disregarding FDA guidance and giving dewormer to our inmates at the jail. And so, I don’t care how much Dr. Karas wants for his contract. We need someone new who is following FDA guidance to be treating our inmates. And so I just wanted to say that, because it’s very disturbing to me that that’s the level of medical care that we’re providing to the folks down at the jail.
Charles Hopkins: Here to talk about this is Guy Sullivan, director of the ACLU Arkansas, and Zachary Crow, executive director of DecARcerate. Welcome.
Zachary Crow: Thank you.
Gary Sullivan: Thank you.
Charles Hopkins: Gary, when did you become aware that the men at the Washington County Detention Center Arkansas were being given this anti-parasite medicine?
Gary Sullivan: Late last summer it came to light in a budget committee meeting at the Washington County Quorum Court that ivermectin had been administered to detainees at the Washington County Detention Center, so we started some Freedom of Information Act requests to get as much information as we could about that at that time.
Charles Hopkins: Were the men that were given this, did they give their consent to receive this medication, and why were they given this medication?
Gary Sullivan: We learned at that time that the detainees at the jail were told they were being given vitamins and steroids to make them feel better. They were not told they were being given ivermectin at all, so they weren’t giving any consent. Later, after we complained about this, they were informed that they were getting ivermectin, but they still weren’t informed of the side effects and the potential dangers of this drug, and they weren’t told that it’s not approved by the FDA for use to treat COVID.
Charles Hopkins: Okay, and in terms of them not being told by the medical staff, do you believe that the medical staff at the detention center were intentionally using this medication as a form of experimentation?
Gary Sullivan: It appears that that might be the case. After the media picked up on this story, several of the detainees refused to take the ivermectin anymore. And about the same time, Dr. Karas, who is the medical provider for the jail, put up signs in front of his clinics – He also has a private clinic business – Soliciting private citizens to join his research group to determine if ivermectin was effective as a COVID treatment.
Charles Hopkins: Who authorized them to use ivermectin in this particular facility?
Gary Sullivan: Dr. Karas and Karas Correctional Medicine started using the ivermectin and the sheriff gave him his blessing and allowed it.
Charles Hopkins: Can criminal charges be brought against the medical staff and anyone else involved in this?
Gary Sullivan: I cannot comment on that. We are only handling the civil case here.
Charles Hopkins: Okay, and Mr. Crow, in terms of you representing DecARcerate, what are y’all’s position on this problem? Keeping in mind that we’re talking about people that are detained and they have not yet been convicted of any crime. What are y’all’s position on this particular abuse that’s taking place?
Zachary Crow: Yeah, so our position would be the same as COVID at large. What this pandemic has shown us over and over again is that mass incarceration is a public health crisis, and so it’s not surprising that this happened in a jail where people have always received subpar, improper medical treatment for, really, since the history of penitentiaries started in Arkansas. This has always been the case here, where people are receiving improper, insufficient medical care.
And so it’s no wonder that in a pandemic like this Washington County has such high COVID numbers. One of the ways that we’re calling for this to be addressed is fewer people in jail. We think one of the only real ways to address the harm that’s been done is to mitigate that harm by holding fewer and fewer people in confinement. Particularly, as you say, jail, where no one in jail has been convicted of a crime.
Charles Hopkins: Can you give us some of the specific actions you are taking to minimize that problem? Because as you said, we both recognize we’re dealing with detainees and they’re under a different standard. What are some of the actions, direct actions, y’all are taking to try to reduce the population or get them to release prisoners or detainees?
Zachary Crow: Yeah. Well, in Washington County specifically, when we learned about this in August of last year we began putting pressure by lots and lots of phone calls both to Dr. Karas and also to Sheriff Helder to end the contract with Dr. Karas’s office and also to continue releasing people from the jail. And so we started calling and trying to put as much pressure on these institutions as possible.
We also continued to contact the governor. The governor during this COVID pandemic has released some people early from prisons, but that’s happened in fewer and fewer places as far as jails go. And so we’re trying to put pressure both on the state to release people from prisons but also individual counties to change their practices of who they hold, how long they hold people, who’s allowed access to bail, those kinds of things.
Charles Hopkins: Okay, so in terms of that, are y’all advocating bail reform?
Zachary Crow: Yeah, absolutely. DecARcerate, one of our primary campaigns is around court debt, so that would of course be bail, but also fines and fees.
Charles Hopkins: Hey Gary, what’s the status of the lawsuit? Because I’m aware that y’all filed a lawsuit. Can you give us the status of it, and does it involve punitive and monetary damages as well?
Gary Sullivan: This case was filed Jan. 13 and the defendants, once they’re served, have 21 days to file a response to the complaint. That time period has not yet run, so the court will not set a scheduling order until the defendants have responded. In this case the defendants are the sheriff, Sheriff Helder of Washington County, the Washington County Detention Center, and also Dr. Karas and Karas Correctional Medicine.
Once there is a scheduling order in place then discovery will proceed and we’ll look forward to having a trial date. We are asking that the court enter an injunction preventing the county and Dr. Karas from prescribing and administering ivermectin in the jail and a declaration that that practice was unconstitutional. We do not seek money damages in this case.
Charles Hopkins: And why is that?
Gary Sullivan: At the ACLU of Arkansas, we try to right wrongs. We do not look for money damages.
Charles Hopkins: And in terms of the plaintiffs, the detainees, are any of them still being detained in Washington County Detention Center to your knowledge?
Gary Sullivan: The four plaintiffs are still detainees as far as I know, the last time I looked, and they have not contacted me to say they’ve been released. And that was as of last week so I believe that they are still in jail.
Charles Hopkins: And what are some of the conditions they’re undergoing because of filing this lawsuit? Have they been retaliated against because they are plaintiffs in this lawsuit, to your knowledge?
Gary Sullivan: At least one plaintiff believes that he may have been retaliated against, but I don’t have specific facts on that. Some of the plaintiffs continue to experience gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or stomach pain.
Charles Hopkins: And this is directly related to the ivermectin?
Gary Sullivan: I can’t say that it is or is not. That’s why we’re asking the judge to order that these detainees be allowed to have a private doctor examine them and evaluate them because they no longer trust Dr. Karas to do that.
Charles Hopkins: And have any of them said that they believe this is the result of that, the anti-parasite medicine?
Gary Sullivan: The plaintiffs believe that that is possible because they didn’t have these symptoms and side effects before they took the ivermectin.
Charles Hopkins: Can you talk about the side effects of ivermectin, to your knowledge?
Gary Sullivan: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, the plaintiffs in our case have experienced stomach issues. They’ve had stomach pain, diarrhea, which isn’t surprising since they’re taking a medicine that’s used for deworming. If it’s given in incorrect dosages it can cause seizures, coma, and death. And as we have calculated based on the medical records we obtained of the plaintiffs, they have been given dosages way higher than humans should be given for the uses of ivermectin which are for certain parasites such as worms, head lice, and a skin condition called rosacea, which none of these inmates had.
Charles Hopkins: And Zach, do you have any knowledge on this particular medicine?
Zachary Crow: Not beyond what Mr. Sullivan has shared. I would just add that we learned about this experimentation really randomly at a quorum court meeting. It came up as a vague reference in a committee meeting. And so, this is what we know, but I think it raises lots of other concerns about what is being done in this jail that maybe has not come up. And so I think it raises concerns even beyond this about the treatment or the lack of treatment that people in Washington County Jail, but jails all over the state of Arkansas, are receiving.
Charles Hopkins: And Gary, one last question. Do you know of any other jails or institutions that are experimenting with prisoners, any that utilize experimentation such as this?
Gary Sullivan: We have received one report from another county jail in Arkansas. We have not verified that report yet and I don’t know who the medical provider is for that county jail. But what the taxpayers of Washington County need to know is that Dr. Karas has a contract. He gets $1.5 million a year to provide this medical care to the inmates and he has basically been doing experimentation with drugs that aren’t approved for the uses that he is utilizing for them.
Charles Hopkins: And to your knowledge does he have a history of doing this?
Gary Sullivan: As far as we know this started in November of 2020 so I don’t know if any other drugs were used incorrectly at the jail before that.
Charles Hopkins: And Zach, when we look at this situation that these men are still confined and still detained, does DecARcerate have any position on getting people moved out of these types of environments or have organized or mobilized the community to have some kind of influence on impacting legislators to do these things?
Zachary Crow: Sure. We’re looking at whether there are any legislative possibilities. The next legislative session in Arkansas will not be until January of next year, so another full year, and so hands are somewhat tied with what could be done legislatively, but we are partnering with folks in Washington County to address this on a local level.
Something else that’s happening in Washington County where this happened is that Washington County is trying really hard to use COVID relief money to expand this jail where this happened and so there are lots of folks mobilized on the ground there in Washington County who are resisting that attempted expansion with COVID relief money. So money from the government that was meant for COVID relief, Washington County is attempting to use to expand this jail. And so that’s one of the ongoing fights of not only let’s get people out, but let’s not make this behemoth any bigger. Let’s not grow the beast.
Charles Hopkins: What are some of the things that y’all are doing in the community to get these men that’s being detained, get their families and other supporters to join y’all in the fight to bring justice to these people’s plight?
Zachary Crow: Well, I’m not personally connected to any of the plaintiffs in this suit but we are working with some of our partners in that part of the state. I’m not personally in Washington County but we’re working with folks in that area, as I said, to continue fighting this attempted expansion and to get folks out of jail. And so folks are showing up to quorum court meetings and trying to put as much pressure to stop this jail expansion as possible.
Charles Hopkins: And Gary, what do you think the community can do to support the lawsuit or the actions that’s being taken on behalf of the ACLU at Arkansas? What do you think the community should be doing or can be doing to help raise the awareness of the plight that the men at Washington County Detention Center are undergoing in Arkansas?
Gary Sullivan: Members of the public could make sure they talk about this issue and let anyone else know that doesn’t already know about what’s going on there. They could also appear at quorum court meetings when the public’s allowed to speak and express their opinions. They can also write letters.
Charles Hopkins: Okay. And Zach?
Zachary Crow: Yeah. I would echo all of those. The quorum court meetings are where our partners in that part of the state have really put their focus because it’s where this was first learned about. It’s the body that has direct control over this jail expansion and these contracts and so it’s a place where the power in the room to make these changes exists and is open for public comments. It’s really easy to show up to a meeting at the quorum court and make yourself heard.
Charles Hopkins: There you have it. Rattling the Bars. Gary Sullivan and Zachary Crow. Gary, the ACLU, and Zachary Crow of DecARcerate Arkansas. Both are rattling the bars, making the noise, bringing to the attention the abuses that are taking place in Arkansas County Detention Center. Thank both of you for joining us today.
Gary Sullivan: Thank you.
Zachary Crow: Thanks.
Charles Hopkins: And on behalf of myself and Eddie, continue to rattle the bars. Thank you very much.