Guards’ pol­icy slips cited for state prison flare-ups

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MORITZ

A string of vi­o­lent al­ter­ca­tions at Arkansas’ max­i­mum se­cu­rity prisons oc­curred, in large part, be­cause cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers failed to fol­low pol­icy, ac­cord­ing to state prisons di­rec­tor Wendy Kel­ley.

Kel­ley, who has led the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion since 2015, gave an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view to the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette, in which she was asked specif­i­cally about sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant in­ci­dents in which of­fi­cers were in­jured, shots were fired or in­mates took con­trol of ar­eas of the unit. The in­ter­view was of­fered in the af­ter­math of an­other prison out­burst the day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing that sent two guards to the hospi­tal.

Over­all, since the sum­mer, at least five guards and eight in­mates have been hos­pi­tal­ized in in­stances of prison vi­o­lence. One in­mate, Jonathan De­moret, died in Au­gust af­ter a fight the month be­fore. Across the state’s prison sys­tem this year, staff mem­bers have seen an av­er­age of 64 in­ci­dents a month of bat­tery or threats of vi­o­lence, ac­cord­ing

to the de­part­ment.

Among the er­rors Kel­ley de­scribed as di­rect causes of the spe­cific in­ci­dents she was asked about were of­fi­cers skip­ping re­quired searches of in­mates and less-ex­pe­ri­enced staff mem­bers be­ing as­signed to han­dle known trou­ble­mak­ers.

In Kel­ley’s as­sess­ment, the fol­low­ing were not di­rect causes: the prison sys­tem’s on­go­ing strug­gles with crowd­ing, main­tain­ing a full staff and keep­ing out a volatile syn­thetic ver­sion of mar­i­juana.

“I think the vi­o­lence that we have seen has been the re­sult of in­mate be­hav­ior, first and fore­most, and se­condly, staff not fol­low­ing pol­icy,” Kel­ley said. “The short­age of staff leads to burnout, staff are re­quired to work over­time to pull ex­tra shifts be­cause we have to cover all the posts. It’s a stress­ful job any­way, and re­quir­ing them to stay over or fill an ad­di­tional shift, it com­pounds the stress. But I don’t be­lieve that any of the in­ci­dents that hap­pened, hap­pened be­cause there weren’t enough staff present.”

Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and law­mak­ers have ques­tioned the de­part­ment’s re­sponse to the in­ci­dents. The head of the union rep­re­sent­ing a small num­ber of cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, James Nick­els, called it “a per­fect storm for which man­age­ment is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble.”

The spe­cific in­ci­dents about which Kel­ley was asked were:

On July 22, a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer fired three warn­ing shots in re­sponse to a stab­bing at the Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit.

On Aug. 7, six in­mates at the Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit took keys from an of­fi­cer and held sev­eral guards hostage for three hours.

On Sept. 28, separate in­ci­dents at the Varner Unit near Gould and at the Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit sent three of­fi­cers to the hospi­tal.

On the day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing, two of­fi­cers were taken hostage by a pair of in­mates at the Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit for sev­eral hours. Af­ter us­ing lethal force, the of­fi­cers and the in­mates were treated at a hospi­tal.

In all but one of the ex­am­ples, she said, the in­ci­dents were pre­ventable if ex­ist­ing pol­icy had been fol­lowed.

Kel­ley de­clined to spec­ify which staffing er­rors had led to which in­ci­dents and de­clined to elab­o­rate on the record about what had oc­curred in each in­stance. The de­part­ment has re­peat­edly de­clined to re­lease in­ci­dent re­ports compiled by staff mem­bers in re­sponse to vi­o­lence, say­ing the “in­mate records” are ex­empt from Arkansas’ pub­lic records laws.

One cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer was fired in re­sponse to the above in­ci­dents, specif­i­cally the vi­o­lence that oc­curred at the Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit on July 22. Other of­fi­cers re­ceived lesser pun­ish­ments, at least one was transferred to an­other unit, and some quit, Kel­ley said.

In ad­di­tion, Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity Unit War­den Danny Burl re­tired ef­fec­tive Nov. 3, though Kel­ley said she did not ask him to do so. Burl did not re­turn a call seek­ing com­ment.

Re­spond­ing to re­peated re­ports of prison vi­o­lence, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son called in Au­gust for “dis­ci­plinary action,” and later said more safe­guards were needed in­side the units. Speak­ing with re­porters last week, Hutchin­son re­it­er­ated his sup­port for Kel­ley.

“Ap­pro­pri­ate dis­ci­plinary action has been taken, when­ever pol­icy is fol­lowed,” Hutchin­son said. “There’s al­ways go­ing to be in­ci­dences, and the ques­tion is what can we do to pre­vent this in the fu­ture.”

Kel­ley’s plan to de­ter more vi­o­lence was pre­sented to law­mak­ers in Oc­to­ber. It in­cludes con­vert­ing 400 ex­ist­ing cells into re­stric­tive hous­ing — where in­mates can be put in lock­down for at least 22 hours a day — build­ing more con­trolled ac­cess points, and re­plac­ing chain­link fenc­ing in higher-se­cu­rity recre­ation pens, from which in­mates have been able to es­cape.

“Ev­ery step that should be taken is be­ing taken,” the gov­er­nor said of the plan.

Kel­ley told the news­pa­per that the de­part­ment has be­gun those pro­cesses, as well as adding new scan­ners and se­cu­rity cam­eras. The de­part­ment will also con­tinue to seek more money to boost of­fi­cers’ wages, in hopes that it will at­tract and re­tain staffing, Kel­ley said.

There were 561 va­can­cies de­part­ment-wide in Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent board re­port. In Au­gust, Kel­ley sought and re­ceived leg­isla­tive ap­proval to give pay in­creases to of­fi­cers at three units that have the high­est va­cancy rates. But af­ter a new statewide pay plan was im­ple­mented, Kel­ley said the de­part­ment de­ter­mined that it didn’t have enough money and gave the added pay only to of­fi­cers at the most un­der­staffed prison, Varner.

Varner, which houses the state’s Su­per­max Unit and death row, had 99 va­can­cies in Oc­to­ber.

“While I don’t think the short­age of staff caused these par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dents, I don’t want it to ap­pear that I’m say­ing be­cause we’re short­staffed it doesn’t mat­ter, we can op­er­ate the way we al­ways op­er­ate,” Kel­ley said. “That’s not true.”

Asked to re­spond to Kel­ley’s com­ments, Nick­els, the di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, County and Mu­nic­i­pal Em­ploy­ees Coun­cil 38 — which rep­re­sents about 100 of­fi­cers — said he ex­pected the vi­o­lence to con­tinue if staff mem­bers are over­worked and un­der­paid. The prison sys­tem has about 4,700 of­fi­cers.

A for­mer Demo­cratic law­maker from North Lit­tle Rock, Nick­els said it is tough to get more fund­ing for prisons.

“The mis­take was the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion is not prop­erly fund­ing their op­er­a­tion, or the state is not prop­erly fund­ing their op­er­a­tion,” Nick­els said.

The chair­man of the leg­isla­tive Sub­com­mit­tee on Char­i­ta­ble, Pe­nal and Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tions, Sen. Joyce El­liott, D-Lit­tle Rock, said she wanted an out­side au­dit to be done on Arkansas’ prisons to de­ter­mine if there are bet­ter prac­tices to fol­low.

“It al­most seems as if there is lit­tle thought about what is hap­pen­ing on the front end, of not get­ting to the point of er­ror,” El­liott said. “I just don’t have a sense that is be­ing done well.”

Asked what was caus­ing in­mates to act in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent, Kel­ley said she had heard anec­do­tally that in­mates in re­stric­tive hous­ing were upset about a new pol­icy en­acted ear­lier this year that re­stricts their com­mis­sary spend­ing — through which they can buy food, cloth­ing, bat­ter­ies and other sup­plies — to $10 a week.

K2, or syn­thetic mar­i­juana, is also con­tribut­ing to vi­o­lence within the prisons, Kel­ley said.

How­ever, she said, in all the above in­ci­dents, only one in­mate in­volved tested pos­i­tive for drugs, and that was for a drug that wasn’t K2. Not all of the sus­pected in­mates were drug tested, she added, and K2 is known to be dif­fi­cult to de­tect.

“An in­mate will say, ‘Well, I thought it was weed. … I don’t know what I did, I don’t re­mem­ber,’” Kel­ley said. “It causes a panic in them in most in­stances be­cause they don’t re­mem­ber.”

Kel­ley also said she has not heard con­cerns voiced by any in­mates out­side of death row about the state re­sum­ing ex­e­cu­tions this year af­ter a decade-long hia­tus.

The De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion has av­er­aged hous­ing more than 16,000 in­mates in state prisons this year.

Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers and law­mak­ers have ques­tioned the de­part­ment’s re­sponse to the in­ci­dents. The head of the union rep­re­sent­ing a small num­ber of cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, James Nick­els, called it “a per­fect storm for which man­age­ment is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble.”

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