State working to improve safety in prisons
LITTLE ROCK — The number of violent incidents in Arkansas prison units was above normal this past summer, causing the Department of Correction to initiate a three-part strategy to improve safety inside prison walls.
The department will upgrade security equipment in entrance buildings, as well as in recreation areas. Two incidents at the Tucker unit occurred after inmates escaped through the fencing around their recreation cages and went into other areas of the prison unit.
In one incident, a group of inmates overpowered two security officers and took keys and a taser. They held the officers for three hours.
In the other incident, a guard fired three warning shots in the air to disrupt a fight in which two guards and an inmate were assaulted.
In all four of the state’s maximum security units, the department will tighten security by building controlled access points at the entrances to barracks. Many inmates are housed in open barracks. A few guards in a securely closed room keep the barracks under observation. This past summer, several violent incidents occurred in the open barracks.
The four maximum security units are at Tucker, Cummins, Varner and Brickeys, in Lee County.
The third part of the department’s plan is to convert about 400 cells now connected to open areas, to make them more secure so they can be used for unruly inmates. Department officials have told the legislature that more space for isolation is needed, to protect inmates from being attacked by the unruly prisoners and to preserve overall security inside the prison units.
The governor supports the plan. He requested that prison officials develop improved safety measures in late September, after three guards were hurt in two separate incidents at two different prison units.
A guard was assaulted in the maximum security unit at Tucker, and later on the same day a group of inmates assaulted two guards at the Varner unit. All three guards suffered injuries.
A legislative committee has approved the department’s proposal to increase hazard pay at its most dangerous units, in an attempt to fill their staffing vacancies. The Correction Department director told a legislative committee that about 300 positions are vacant, of a total of about 4,700. Part of the challenge of filling the vacancies is that most prison units are in isolated, rural areas.
The legislature appropriated about $350 million for state prison operations this year. The state has jurisdiction over 18,180 inmates, but not all of them are housed in prison units. On any given day, more than 1,000 are likely to be held in county jails, waiting until space is available in a prison unit. About 300 inmates are assigned to work duties in county jails or local State Police headquarters.
Also this past summer, a 25-year-old inmate in the Tucker unit died after he was assaulted by another inmate. Numerous fights occurred throughout the prison system. The director of prisons told the state Board of Correction Department that the number of fights tends to increase in summer, but the increase was sharper this year.
Editor’s note: Arkansas Senator Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.