Three in­quiries start on prison takeover

In­mates still had key on trans­fer bus

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MORITZ

Three sep­a­rate state in­ves­ti­ga­tions be­gan Tues­day into Mon­day’s brief in­mate takeover of part of the max­i­mum se­cu­rity prison in Tucker.

And of­fi­cials’ text mes­sages in­di­cate that even af­ter the three-hour stand­off, as the pris­on­ers were be­ing trans­ferred to a more se­cure prison, they had a prison key with them on the trans­fer bus.

Texts be­tween the Tucker Unit war­den and other prison of­fi­cials in­di­cated that the six in­mates in­volved in Mon­day’s dis­tur­bance were able to take a key onto the bus that took them to the Varner Su­perMax Unit, which houses death row in­mates and pris­on­ers who are deemed safety risks.

In an email to staff mem­bers who have been tapped to lead the Depart­ment of Correction’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Di­rec­tor Wendy Kel­ley said the in­mates took keys, a Taser and “other equip­ment”

dur­ing Mon­day evening’s takeover.

The emails and texts were first re­ported by An­drew DeMillo of The Associated Press and were later pro­vided to the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette un­der the state Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

Benny Mag­ness, the chair­man of the Arkansas Board of Cor­rec­tions, said Tues­day that he had directed his staff of two in­ves­ti­ga­tors to con­duct a re­view sep­a­rate from one started by the Depart­ment of Correction.

In ad­di­tion, Arkansas State Po­lice spe­cial agents are in­ves­ti­gat­ing any crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity that oc­curred dur­ing or in the lead-up to the takeover, a spokesman said.

Aside from an­nounc­ing that the takeover — which did not re­sult in death or crit­i­cal in­jury — would be the sub­ject of scru­tiny, of­fi­cials Tues­day were mute in re­sponse to re­quests for a more de­tailed ac­count of what oc­curred in­side the prison Mon­day.

Ac­cord­ing to a se­ries of up­dates emailed to news or­ga­ni­za­tions Mon­day evening and a brief news con­fer­ence held by a prison spokesman in Tucker, six in­mates were able to over­power a pair of cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and take their keys, then de­tain some staff mem­bers Mon­day. About three hours later, the six in­mates re­leased all staff mem­bers and sur­ren­dered.

One in­mate, who was not among those in­sti­gat­ing the takeover, was in­jured and taken to an area hos­pi­tal Mon­day evening. That in­mate was re­turned to prison that night, prison spokesman Solomon Graves said Tues­day. The in­mate was not iden­ti­fied.

The in­mates in­volved in the takeover have been moved to soli­tary con­fine­ment at the Varner Su­perMax Unit, which houses death row in­mates and pris­on­ers who are deemed safety risks.

Shortly af­ter the pris­on­ers’ sur­ren­der was an­nounced Mon­day evening, a prison bus drove past re­porters who had gath­ered out­side the Tucker prison com­pound. In­side

were in­mates, who stood and shouted out of the win­dows, although it was un­clear what they said.

Ac­cord­ing to the text mes­sages re­leased Tues­day, the pris­on­ers were taken by bus to the Varner Unit. One text states that the pris­on­ers had uri­nated in the bus and that a key was later found on the bus.

In one text, Tucker Unit War­den Joe Page says it was a “large key or cuff key.”

“Or may have used the cuff key to get out of re­straints on the high­way,” replied Dex­ter Payne, the depart­ment’s deputy di­rec­tor for in­sti­tu­tions.

But the in­mates did not es­cape from their re­straints while on the bus, and there were no ad­di­tional at­tempts to over­power guards, prison spokesman Graves said.

“We need to learn from these in­ci­dents, make changes as nec­es­sary, and con­tinue to strengthen our op­er­a­tion,” Kel­ley said in her email to the Depart­ment of Correction in­ves­ti­ga­tion team.

No for­mal charges re­lated to the takeover have been filed against any of the in­mates, said state po­lice spokesman Bill Sadler. Nei­ther the state po­lice nor the Depart­ment of Correction re­leased the names of the in­mates in­volved.

State po­lice do not have the au­thor­ity to in­ves­ti­gate poli­cies or prac­tices of an­other state agency beyond crim­i­nal al­le­ga­tions, Sadler said.

On Tues­day, the Depart­ment of Correction be­gan a “crit­i­cal in­ci­dent re­view” of the takeover and plan to develop a re­port, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble rec­om­men­da­tions, within 45 days.

That re­view will be car­ried out by a team from an­other unit — con­sist­ing of a prison war­den and two ma­jors from an­other unit, as well as a depart­ment psy­chol­o­gist, and in­ves­ti­ga­tor and at least one prison man­ager, Graves said.

Graves also re­leased in­for­ma­tion Tues­day about staffing lev­els at the prison, which he was asked about while ad­dress­ing re­porters at the scene Mon­day night in Tucker. He said the prison

had 49 un­filled po­si­tions, nearly a quar­ter of its au­tho­rized force of 208.

Trou­ble main­tain­ing a full work­force is not unique to the prison in Tucker. Depart­ment data sent to the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette ear­lier this year show that the statewide va­cancy rate for cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers has more than dou­bled since 2012, reach­ing above 12 per­cent this year.

In the same time pe­riod, the num­ber of job­less Arkansans has fallen as the econ­omy has im­proved.

The Depart­ment of Correction raised the pay of nearly 1,700 cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers last year in a bid to at­tract and re­tain work­ers. Ear­lier this year, road signs were erected along U.S. 65, within eye­sight of the Varner prison, ad­ver­tis­ing jobs at the depart­ment.

The depart­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion

is in­de­pen­dent of the re­view be­ing con­ducted by the Board of Correction, which over­sees the prison sys­tem, as well as pa­role and pro­ba­tion ser­vices.

“When we do an in­ci­dent like this, it’s im­por­tant to get the board staff’s in­put, rather than just the agency’s in­put,” Mag­ness said. “That doesn’t mean the agency is wrong.”

Mag­ness said he ex­pects a re­port to be com­piled within 30 to 45 days, which he will make avail­able to the public. Un­til then, he de­clined to dis­cuss what he ex­pected the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to un­cover.

Graves said the depart­ment’s re­view will de­ter­mine whether Mon­day’s in­ci­dent rose to the level of a riot.

Ri­ots oc­cur when six or more in­mates dis­rupt “the good order and safety of the in­sti­tu­tion,” Graves said in an email.

One text states that the pris­on­ers had uri­nated in the bus and that a key was later found on the bus.

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