Three inquiries start on prison takeover
Inmates still had key on transfer bus
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.