Editor’s Note: This is a Pine Bluff Commercial special investigation.
At least three inmates escaped individual recreation pens and attacked two prison guards and another inmate at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit July 22 before they were subdued, an Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) spokesman confirmed Tuesday.
A prison guard fired three warning shots during the breakout, ADC spokesman Solomon Graves said, but prison officials did not tell Arkansas State Police officers who arrived to investigate about the shots. State police learned about the warning shots when the incident was made public Monday, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said in a statement.
State police special agents are conducting an investigation into the breakout and will present the results to the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, Sadler said. After confirming to the Arkansas Times Monday that warning shots were fired, Graves said the ADC has begun a parallel investigation into what happened. The Times said it worked the story based on a tip. The investigation will include evaluations of the actions of staff “both during the incident and post-incident,” he said.
“Any decisions regarding corrective action, whether those be policy changes, whether those be personnel actions, those will follow once the investigation is complete,” Graves said. “Obviously this isn’t something the department is going to drag out, but the goal is to conduct a thorough investigation.”
The incident occurred when two corrections officers were assaulted while attempting to handcuff an inmate and stop another two from escaping, Graves said. During the breakout, “at least one other inmate gained access to a locked cell and stabbed another inmate,” Sadler said.
The injured correctional officers and inmate were treated for what Graves called “minor” injuries at the prison’s infirmary. The injuries included cuts, lacerations, abrasions and bruising, he said. Initial information provided to state police indicated the incident began at 8:57 a.m. on July 22 and state police were called at 9:10 a.m., Sadler said.
The maximum security unit is located near the lower-security Tucker Unit, 25 miles northeast of Pine Bluff. It houses higher-level offenders, with a unit capacity of 532, according to the ADC website.
Inmates in the maximum security unit are provided a minimum of one hour per day of outdoor recreation. The prison features a recreation yard used by the general population, as well as 24 individual locked recreation “pens” that are roughly 15 feet by 18 feet in size, Graves said.
Inmates assigned for recreation to the individual pens are considered “housed in punitive isolation,” Graves said, “meaning they have committed and been found guilty of a disciplinary infraction that was serious enough to land them in punitive isolation for a period of time.”
Two perimeter fences surround the recreation yard and individual recreation pens. The second perimeter fence is electrified. Graves said the warning shots were fired “out of an abundance of caution and not the direct result of an attempt to breech the perimeter fencing.”
He added, “though the internal investigation in to [sic] this incident is ongoing, it does not appear that this disturbance rose to the level of a ‘riot.’ Departmental staff regained control of the situation and restored normal unit operations without the assistance of outside law enforcement.”
The ADC considers a riot to occur when six or more inmates band together to “disrupt unit operations,” Graves said.
Asked why the breakout and shooting was not reported to the media and general public, Graves said ADC policy is to report all “serious” incidents within the department to “the appropriate Departmental personnel, the Board of Corrections, the assistant to the Board, and to the Governor’s staff. Following notification to the aforementioned individuals, the news media will be notified of all serious incidents. Serious incidents include, but are not limited to, escapes/attempted escapes, rioting, or the battery of staff or inmates resulting in hospitalization.”