Prisons’ director reviews three disturbances
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said after meeting with his prisons chief Friday that he expects “disciplinary action” to result from a string of violent incidents that left one inmate dead and several guards injured.
Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley briefed the governor Friday afternoon on the three disturbances at two high-security lockups that occurred over a two-week period.
After the meeting, Hutchinson said in a statement that prison policies had been broken.
Hutchinson told reporters earlier in the day that he has
“100 percent” confidence in Kelley’s leadership. She has led the prisons department throughout his administration.
Last week, prisons officials disclosed that two guards were injured in late July while intervening in a reported stabbing at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker.
On Monday, six inmates were able to overpower guards and briefly take over an area of that prison. It was later revealed through officials’ text messages that the prisoners had access to what appeared to be a handcuff key while being transported by bus to a more secure prison.
On Thursday, the Department of Correction announced that a prisoner died as a result of an assault nearly two weeks earlier at the Tucker Unit, a separate facility located within eyesight of the Max Unit.
The incidents have brought attention to staffing issues at Arkansas’ prisons, where more than 14 percent of security positions were vacant in July.
When asked about the violence at the Tucker prisons, Hutchinson said they concerned him, and he also pointed to staffing issues, which he called “significant.”
Hutchinson said he would continue to look at ways to attract and maintain staff at prisons, after statewide employee pay raises were enacted earlier this year.
Asked about his confidence in Kelley’s performance, Hutchinson did not hesitate.
“She’s doing a great job,” Hutchinson told a cluster of reporters in Little Rock on Friday morning. “She’s good, she’s devoted, she follows my initiatives, she’s tough, she’s the right prison director for us, absolutely.”
After Hutchinson met with Kelley at the Capitol later in the day, his office released a statement saying the public was never in danger, specifically during the takeover at the Max Unit.
But the events underscored the danger posed to corrections officers, the statement said.
“It appears that the policies in place were adequate but not followed. Based upon my conversation with Director Kelley, I expect disciplinary action to be taken; however, we will wait on a final decision until the review has been completed,” Hutchinson’s statement read.
In a phone call after the meeting, Kelley said she had provided an overview of the incidents, and offered to give
the governor more information after internal reviews were completed. She said the governor asked whether the incidents were handled in a manner consistent with federal standards.
A prisons spokesman later said it did not appear feder- al regulations were violated during any of the events.
Earlier in the week, Hutchinson’s office said he had spoken with Kelley to receive updates as the six inmates at the Max Unit spoke to negotiators before surrendering.
Talking with reporters, Hutchinson said he was also notified about the pair of July incidents at the Tucker and Max units the day each occurred, though the incidents only became public more than a week later.
On July 22, two guards were injured as they responded to a stabbing in the solitary confinement area in the Maximum Security Unit, and three warning shots were fired.
The Arkansas Times first reported the incident July 31, and the Arkansas State Police said it had been investigating, but had not been told of the warning shots.
A July 28 assault at the Tucker Unit left 25-year-old inmate John Demoret in the hospital. The department reported the assault Thursday after Demoret, who was serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter, died at a Malvern-area hospital.
“I’m concerned about any deaths in prison as well as any breakout of violence there,” Hutchinson said Friday. “That’s one of the reasons we have state police training as backups.”
State police have said they are investigating each of the incidents separately. The Department of Correction has not said that the incidents are connected.
Kelley told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Thursday that the six inmates who were able to take over an area of the Maximum Security Unit asked to be transferred to the Varner Supermax prison, which they later were. She said she had not received any prior warnings about safety at the prison.
Trouble maintaining a prison workforce predates Kelley’s tenure atop the department. According to data released earlier this year, the number of unfilled positions has more than doubled since 2012, as the state’s economy improved and joblessness fell.
Also during her tenure, Kelley oversaw the first executions to be carried out in the state in more than a decade, at Hutchinson’s direction.