LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Recent disturbances at an Arkansas maximum security prison — including one where inmates were able to control part of the facility after snatching keys and a Taser — are putting a harsh new spotlight on the state’s Correction Department. There are few answers on how the incidents unfolded, which means little guidance on what solutions are needed to address problems in the future.
Several inmates last week held three correction officers in an area of the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker for about three hours after somehow getting prison keys before they released the officers and surrendered. The disturbance came a little more than two weeks after a guard at the same facility fired warning shots into the air following an attack on two other guards and an inmate. In an unrelated incident, the department and State Police are investigating after an inmate died from his injuries last week from an assault at Tucker Unit — which is separate from the maximum security prison.
State prison officials are likely to face questions this week about the incidents when they appear before lawmakers for a previously scheduled legislative hearing on other topics.
“If there are issues of not having enough personnel, if there are policies and practices that we need to change, whatever the case is, something needs to happen,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, who co-chairs the Legislative Council’s charitable, penal and correctional institutions subcommittee. “Because this is not good for the people who work there, nor is it good for the population in general.”
Staffing is likely to be the first concern that comes up with the disturbances, at least at Tucker Max. The Department of Correction says about a quarter of the facility’s 208 authorized security positions are vacant. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said staffing and recruitment is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“It’s significant because sometimes they have to shift staff from other institutions because Tucker Max is the one you’ve got to make sure has the proper coverage. You’ve got some turnover, and every time you have that you’ve got to have more training,” Hutchinson told reporters before meeting with Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley to talk about the incidents. “It is a concern, and whenever you have a 3.4 percent unemployment rate, there’s a lot of job opportunities that are out there, so it’s a challenge for us, but it’s just a challenge we have to meet.”
There are plenty of unanswered questions about the recent disturbances, or what other changes prison officials will need to make to avoid similar incidents. The department has not said how several inmates were able to obtain the keys, Taser and other equipment from three correction officers last week. Text messages released by the department also showed that, after the prisoners were moved to another facility following the incident, a prison cuff key was found on the bus that transported them. Questions also surround the July 22 incident. The department said it was not informed of the shots fired in that incident until it was reported by the Arkansas Times about two weeks ago.
The incidents so far haven’t shaken Hutchinson’s faith in Kelley, whom he said he has full confidence in as the state’s top prison official. But the governor has said action against Tucker Max employees is likely.
“It appears that the policies in place were adequate but not followed,” Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. “Based upon my conversation with Director Kelley, I expect disciplinary action to be taken; however, we will wait on a final decision until the review has been completed.”
That review could also offer a guide on what policy changes may be in store for the prison system.