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Foodborne Illness Possible Cause of Arkansas Prison Illnesses

Health department officials Tuesday were all over the maximum security Arkansas prison now known simply as the “Tucker Unit” as almost half its inmates are down with mystery gastrointestinal illnesses.

What’s causing the illnesses at the Tucker Unit, with a capacity of 796 prisoners, still was not known with suspect list including both foodborne illnesses and viruses. State health officials have stepped up their work to find the source.

“The number of inmates who have displayed symptoms is at 357, which is about what it was yesterday afternoon,” Shea Wilson, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections said. “We hope to hear a determination of what the cause is from the Health Department soon.”

About 15 officials from the Arkansas Department of Health were at the prison on Tuesday, interviewing staff and inmates and taking stool samples. Samples of all food served in the prison during the last five days are also being tested.

“We don’t yet have a determination about the cause of the outbreak at Tucker,” said Ed Barham, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Health.

Barham said health department officials Tuesday conducted inspections of the prison kitchen and all food preparation areas in addition to conducting the interviews and taking samples for lab work.

“It’s just going to take some time,” Barham told Food Safety News. It will probably take about a week for the Health Department to provide definitive answers.

Earlier, Wilson figured a virulent virus might be the more likely cause as some inmates who did not eat the food are among the sick. Ill inmates are suffering from symptoms that include alternating between vomiting and diarrhea.

Among the food samples taken from the prison over the weekend were eggs, sausage and grits; corned beef hash and chicken salad.

The Tucker Unit, located in Jefferson County about 25 miles northeast of Pine Bluff, has a storied history. Originally called the Arkansas State Prison Farm, it opened 96 year ago.

From 1926 to 1948, it was famous for housing the “Old Sparky” electric chair on the Arkansas death row.  Another electrical device, called the “Tucker Telephone” also became associated with prison. It was a torturous device that delivered non-lethal electric shock.

The 4,000-acre Tucker Unit is still a prison farm that produces field and edible crops. It also has trade and vocational programs and prison industries.

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