State work­ing to im­prove safety in prisons

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - Capitol Re­port CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Sen­a­tor

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.

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