Watch CBS News

"They used us as an experiment": Arkansas inmates who were given ivermectin to treat COVID file federal lawsuit against jail

Inmates given ivermectin for COVID sue jail
Arkansas inmates file lawsuit claiming they were given ivermectin to treat COVID without their consent 03:13

A group of men detained at Washington County Detention Center in Arkansas say that the jail's medical staff gave them the anti-parasite drug ivermectin last year, without their consent, to treat COVID-19, while telling them the pills were "vitamins." On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the inmates, filed a federal lawsuit against the jail and its doctor. 

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly warned against the use of ivermectin for COVID. The FDA has only approved the medication for humans to treat river blindness, intestinal strongyloidiasis (an illness caused by roundworms), head lice and rosacea. 

The lawsuit claims that medical staff at the jail gave the men ivermectin as early as November 2020, and that the men did not become aware of what the pill was until well after they received it. At a local finance and budget committee meeting last August, county sheriff Tim Helder confirmed that the facility's doctor Dr. Robert Karas prescribed ivermectin.

Edrick Floreal-Wooten, right, with his wife. Floreal-Wooten says he was given ivermectin without his consent while detained at Washington County Jail in Arkansas.  Edrick Floreal-Wooten

According to the lawsuit, as well as CBS News' previous interview with one of the inmates and plaintiffs, 30-year-old Edrick Floreal-Wooten, the jail's medical staff told inmates the ivermectin pills were "vitamins," "antibiotics," and/or "steroids." 

"The truth, however, was that without knowing and voluntary consent, Plaintiffs ingested incredibly high doses of a drug that credible medical professionals, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all agree is not an effective treatment against COVID-19," the lawsuit says. 

The inmates are asking that they receive a medical evaluation by an independent provider and be "awarded their costs, fees, and any other appropriate relief to which they are entitled."  

Washington County Detention Center told CBS News they could not comment on the pending litigation. 

Gary Sullivan, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, issued a statement saying that "no one — including incarcerated individuals — should be deceived and subject to medical experimentation." 

"Sheriff Helder has a responsibility to provide food, shelter, and safe, appropriate care to incarcerated individuals," Sullivan said. "...The detention center failed to use safe and appropriate treatments for COVID-19, even in the midst of a pandemic, and they must be held accountable." 

In August 2021, the lawsuit says that Floreal-Wooten and the other plaintiffs all tested positive for COVID-19. The jail, they said, relocated them to barracks "specifically designated" for quarantine, where it is believed that 22 people were housed. 

It was there, the lawsuit says, that they were given a "cocktail" of between two and 10 pills twice a day by Karas' team. 

"They said they were vitamins"  

CBS News spoke with Floreal-Wooten, over a video call from the detention center in September, where he is still being held. He said he and other inmates were not aware the jail nurses were giving them ivermectin until about five days after they first started receiving the pills.

"They said they were vitamins, steroids and antibiotics," he told CBS News. "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."

The inmates were not able to discern what the pills are, he said, because they were pulled out of a drawer that has dozens of bottles. It was only after news reports emerged of the situation that medical staff started to ask for consent about the ivermectin, Floreal-Wooten said. 

Once they asked permission, he added, he and roughly 20 other people turned them down.

"It was not consensual. They used us as an experiment — like we're livestock," he said. "Just because we wear stripes and we make a few mistakes in life, doesn't make us less of a human. We got families, we got loved ones out there that love us."

The lawsuit says the combination of pills the men were given included "high doses" of vitamins, as well as ivermectin. 

"'High doses' is no hyperbole," the lawsuit says. 

Based on Floreal-Wooten's height and weight, according to the lawsuit, he should have only received up to 0.2 mg/kg in a single dose, roughly 14 mg. 

"Mr. Wooten, however, received 48 mg over a period of four days," the lawsuit says, "3.4 times the approved dosage."

Dayman Blackburn says he faced a similar situation. His medical records, according to the lawsuit, show that he received nearly 6.3 times the approved dosage of ivermectin based on his height and weight. 

People who take "inappropriately high doses" of the medication, according to the CDC, "may experience toxic effects," including nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures, coma and death. Floreal-Wooten told CBS News he suffered from diarrhea and upper abdominal pain in the weeks after he was given the medication.

"I'm scared," he had told CBS News. "...I can't trust any of the medical staff." 

Pharmacy records included with the lawsuit show that Karas' team dispensed at least 200 ivermectin pills in November 2020 alone. 

Documents show that in November 2020, Dr. Robert Karas' team distributed at least 200 pills of ivermectin to detainees at Washington County Detention Center in Arkansas.  ACLU Arkansas

Karas also touted ivermectin to treat COVID-19 through his health care facilities, the lawsuit says.

"Guess we made the news again this week," Karas Health Care said in a Facebook post on January 15. "Still with the best record in the world at the jail with the same protocols. Inmates aren't dumb and I suspect in the future other inmates around the country will be suing their facilities requesting the same treatment we're using at WCDC - including the Ivermectin." 

A week earlier, Karas said "there's a lot of COVID out there" and recommended that adults load up on Vitamin D, Vitamin C, zinc and "a little salt water gargle twice a day" for the next month. 

Karas has said that he started prescribing ivermectin to patients more regularly, and took it himself, after reading information from Frontline Covid Critical Care Alliance -- a controversial group that originated at the beginning of the pandemic and has become known as a source of COVID-19 disinformation. 

Despite the FDA, CDC, World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health all saying ivermectin should not be used for COVID treatment or prevention, FLCC says on its website it is a "core medication." Karas has said the website is "very thorough and professional."  

"No one is wearing a mask"

Even now, Sarah Moore of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition said that it's unclear if COVID protocols have changed at the detention center. When CBS News spoke with Floreal-Wooten, he was in the quarantine barracks. He and other detainees did not have face masks, just black bandanas, he showed us over video. 

Edrick Floreal-Wooten, who is being detained at Arkansas' Washington County Jail, holds up the bandana that he says the jail provides inmates as masks amid the pandemic.  CBS News

"Only when we talk to individuals and can see the pods do we see what's happening," she told CBS News. "Where people are housed in this area...most of the time, no one is wearing a mask. They are heavily overcrowded at this point."

Two-thirds of the people being held at Washington County Detention Center, Moore said, have not been convicted of their accused crime — they're still awaiting trial. 

"Right now, our population is 750. About two-thirds of those are pre-trial. Many of those, about 80 of those folks, are trapped in these bonds that are very high because they've missed a court appointment," she said. "...These are our community members, our moms and dads and cousins and sisters and brothers. And just like you or me, they could easily, we could easily, be accused of something, but they are not convicted." 

While ivermectin can be used to treat conditions such as head lice and rosacea, Moore said "it's highly unusual" for it to be distributed in detention facilities.

"We hear quite the opposite," she said. "It's actually very hard to get any kind of medications in an incarcerated setting, be it the Department of Corrections, in a prison setting, or in a local county jail. ... So it seems quite unusual that vitamins would be offered, or some kind of preemptive type of solution would be offered because oftentimes, the medical care within a congregate setting like this is oftentimes quite expensive for the individual." 

She said it can cost $10 for Tylenol or ibuprofen, causing people who are detained to "weigh whether or not their ache or pain or their symptoms are valid get that type of charge." 

"It just goes back to consent. I mean, we should have choice over our own person," Moore said. "...I think it's a really sad thing to think that we would start to dehumanize people in this way." 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.