Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Guards’ policy slips cited for state prison flare-ups


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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